Even a few years ago the only kind of credit card theft you had to worry about was someone physically stealing your card or copying its numbers when you paid with credit at a store or restaurant. But as online shopping has become widespread and data thieves have increased their skills at breaking into retailers’ computer networks, there’s a much greater chance that your credit card information will be confiscated by some crook.
Here’s what you need to do to protect your credit—and to ensure that you’re not financing a thief’s next spending spree.
- Report the theft immediately. Call your credit card company as soon as you discover a theft of your physical credit card, or as soon as you discover some evidence of fraud (i.e. when you realize that your credit card has been used for transactions that you didn’t make).
Every credit card company has a special department that deals with credit card theft and fraud. You can connect to it when you call the general customer service number. Do this as soon as possible—the credit card companies keep these phone lines open 24/7 and can cancel your cards right away so it will be harder for the thief to use them. Make a note of the day and time that you made this call and the person that you talked to.
No matter when you report the theft of your credit card, your liability for any unauthorized purchases is limited to $50, and banks will often waive these if you notify them promptly. Plus, the sooner you report the theft, the less likely it is that any unauthorized charges will go through. This can be important in protecting your credit record and your credit score.
Tip: Be proactive: Since anyone can be a victim of theft, take the time now to make a list of your credit card numbers and the customer service contacts before you need it. Store it someplace safe.
- Follow up with a letter to the credit card companies confirming the information you gave them about the theft of your card(s). The Federal Trade Commission recommends sending these letters via certified mail and asking for a return receipt. This will be your proof that you reported the theft to the bank.
- File a police report. While there’s not much a local police department can do to stop an online thief (or often even a purse snatcher), some credit card companies may ask you to submit a copy of a police report so they know that your claim of theft is legitimate.
- Check your account frequently to catch any charges that you didn’t make, and report them at once to the credit card company. You should already be taking a look at your credit card charges on a weekly basis, but once you discover your card has been stolen or suspect that it has been used fraudulently you may want to do it a few times a week. In addition, always check your credit card statement carefully when it comes in.
- Notify the credit bureaus and ask them to place a fraud alert on your account. One of the most difficult results of a credit card theft is the damage that it can do to your credit score. You may have less trouble straightening out the mess if you notify the credit bureaus as soon as possible and ask them to place a fraud alert on your account. According to Experian, if someone attempts to increase the credit limit on an existing account or obtain a new card on an account with a fraud alert, the bank issuing the credit card should take additional steps to ensure that you have actually authorized this request.
Tip: You don’t have to notify all three credit bureaus; choose one and it will handle alerting the other two.