What (NOT) To Do When Your Credit Card is Stolen

Category: Finance

What should you do to protect yourself from fraud or identity theft when your walletful of credit cards is lost or stolen? There is a bulletin of advice that’s been floating around the Internet for at least 15 years. Purportedly written by an attorney, the copy I received recently is entitled, “ATTORNEY'S ADVICE - NO CHARGE.” Yes, it's free, but is it good advice? Here's the scoop on that, and my best advice for how to handle a lost or stolen credit card...

Lost Your Wallet? Here's What to Do...

A friend recently forwarded a list of things that you should do to protect yourself from identity theft and fraud. It advises what to do if you you lose your wallet, how to protect your credit cards, and some check writing tips. I had a feeling of deja vu when I read the email from my friend. So I did some digging and found copies of that message in my email from 2008 and 2006. A little more digging, and a Google search turned up a nearly identical copy of the "ATTORNEY'S ADVICE" bulletin posted on a web page dating from 2005.

Call me skeptical, but I don’t believe an attorney would pass around free advice without his name and contact info on it. It’s more likely this advice is written by some layman who decided to attribute it to an anonymous attorney in order to lend it an air of authority. Some of the advice is good, but some is outdated or was always wrong. In this article, I'll try to sort the proverbial wheat from the metaphorical chaff. Here is the advice, along with my comments:

“Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put 'PHOTO ID REQUIRED.”

Technically, a merchant is required to reject unsigned cards. But when was the last time any merchant did so? And if they do look at the signature, how could they possibly know if it's legit? More often than not, you just shove your card into a terminal and the merchant never sees the back of it. And if you shop online, no signature is required. So in practice, it is rarely necessary to sign the back of a card.

What to do - Lost my wallet and credit cards

It's true that signing a card gives a thief your signature to practice forging. But writing “PHOTO ID REQUIRED” in the signature space will only confuse the cashier. I leave mine blank, and only sign the card with my initials if I run into an especially dogmatic merchant.

“When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the 'For/Memo' line. Instead, just put the last four numbers.”

Who writes checks to credit card companies these days? But this outdated advice leads to interesting facts about the data that is encoded in a card number. It turns out that digits 1-6 identify the card issuing bank and credit card network. Digits 7-15 identify the cardholder. Digit 16 is a "check digit" that is used to verify the other digits. If you're mailing a check along with the payment coupon, the last four digits of the card number will appear there as well. So there's no good reason to include ANY of your card digits on the check.

“Put your work phone # on your checks instead of your home phone. If you have a PO Box use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address. Never have your SS# printed on your checks. (DUH!) You can add it if it is necessary. But if you have it printed, anyone can get it.”

Check your credit report on a regular basis, to see if there is any incorrect information, or accounts you don't recognize. My article Free Credit Reports Online explains how U.S. citizens can get four free credit reports per year, and avoid the credit report scammers. See also my article Ten Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft for some common sense things you can do to protect against scams, credit card fraud and identity theft.

This tip is like a drink from a firehose; let's parse it out. No explanation is given for why it’s better for thieves to know your work info than your home info, and I cannot think of one. It's trivial to find the street address of almost anyone with a bit of online sleuthing. And more often, employers rely on the fact everyone has a mobile phone, and do not provide phones to workers.

But yes, keep your Social Security Number to yourself. Business often ask for your SSN because they need a "unique identifier" for you. Instead, ask if you can provide some other proof of identity. Don't write it on a check, ever. The only exception might be when mailing your tax return to the IRS. Remember your SSN is also on the tax form included in that envelope.

“Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both sides of each license, credit card, etc. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place.”

This advice is okay if the contents of your wallet never change; it would get tedious fast if you follow other advice to carry only cards you plan to use each time you leave your house or hotel room. Also, it may be difficult to read those tiny phone numbers on a photocopy without a magnifying glass.

But there's a HUGE caveat to this tip... Don't do this at work, the library, a business center, or with a photocopier in any public place. Modern copiers have hard drives that store images of every copy made. Copiers are often sold or discarded with those hard drives intact. You see where I'm going with this, right?

My advice is to create a document that lists all of your important info that is stored on cards: driver’s license, credit/debit cards, library cards, rewards cards, insurance cards, etc. Next to each of them list the appropriate phone number to call to report a lost/stolen card. Here are some other important phone numbers to include in this document.

“Fraud reporting” phone numbers of the major national credit reporting agencies; call them immediately after reporting your cards missing, and request a “fraud alert” on your file. This will prevent unauthorized applications for credit in your name that thieves may make. You should also call the fraud reporting line of the Social Security Administration. The phone numbers to include in your document are:

  • Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
  • Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742
  • Trans Union: 1-800-680 7289
  • Social Security Administration fraud line: 1-800-269-0271

Now save your document to Dropbox or some other place you can access from anywhere. If you print a copy, DO NOT carry it around with you! Keep this document in a safe, a safe-deposit box, or some other secure location.

Some later versions of the bulletin include this advice about hotel stays:

“When you check out of a hotel that uses cards for keys, do not turn the "keys" in. Take them with you and destroy them. Those little cards have on them all of the information you gave the hotel, including address and credit card numbers and expiration dates. Someone with a card reader, or employee of the hotel, can access all that information with no problem whatsoever.”

This one made me laugh. The hotel obviously has your name, address, and credit card information! You gave all that to the desk clerk when checking in, and he or she can recall it easily on their display. Further, no hotel chain actually does this. The key card simply grants access to the specified room, and once you check out, it is deactivated and useless.

And finally, the “attorney” advises people who have experienced a stolen credit card to file a police report. This is not a bad idea, but even though it isn't likely to get your credit card back, it might keep other people from becoming victims. If there is an increase in burglaries or pickpockets at a certain location, local police can direct resources to target that problem. If no one files reports, they have no way of knowing those crime patterns.

Aside from logging your report, they'll probably just tell you to call your bank and refer you to the list of contacts above. If the officer has a sense of humor, he may even tell you to do a Google search for "ATTORNEY'S ADVICE - NO CHARGE."

So that’s my advice on how to deal with a lost wallet or credit card. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "What (NOT) To Do When Your Credit Card is Stolen"

Posted by:

J Stuart Wells
20 May 2020

I use Dashline for all passwords. I can access it from any computer and it allows me to make secure notes. I am putting all the credit card information in a note and believe that is a safe way to store it and still be able to access it.

Posted by:

20 May 2020

All good advice. Couple nits:

- An unsigned card is not only technically not valid, but using it is technically fraud. Probably never going to matter, but IF the issuer were unhappy enough with you AND had some reason to notice, it would be one more excuse for them to push fraud back on you. So just sign them.

- Card number anatomy is accurate as far as you have it, but incomplete. American Express cards are currently 15 digits, not 16, and the meanings of their digits are slightly different (easy for them, since they're a single issuer). The IIN/BIN ("first six") is going to first eight soon, with 18-digit card numbers, although the issuers are pushing back on the brands over this, since they have to update software to deal with it. And the Luhn checksum last digit is almost universal: there are issuers who do not use it, so there are cards out in the wild with invalid checksums.

Bottom line re lost/stolen cards: calm down, notify issuer, change autopayments. It's a hassle but just a cost of modern life. You're not going to "have your identity stolen" and your maximum theoretical liability is $50; in practice, I've never heard of an issuer even enforcing that (they just eat the fraud and/or push it back on the merchants).

Kind of funny how much of this alleged lawyer's screed isn't really relevant to losing your wallet! I'm guessing someone put it together long ago and decided it would sound more official if it was from a lawyer.

Posted by:

20 May 2020

Not trying to pour water on your parade but I have details of all cards and other documents photocopied as you suggest but my only action with respect to the cards would be to telephone the Issuer and report the card lost or stoen and request a stop on the card which the Issuer will do in any case.

Not sure I agree with your comments about not signing the back of the cards - the signature is required for other reasons; for example, a police check during a lawful stop, search and perhaps arrest - how can that lawful enquiry as to proof of possession be made without a great deal of hassle for both you and the officers if a comparison signature check cannot be made?

Posted by:

Charles Swoboda
20 May 2020

I've also found that, by putting "PLS SEE ID" in the signature block of my credit cards, it forces the merchant to ask for my ID. I have no issues with them asking to see my ID, and am quite disappointed when they don't ask for it!

Posted by:

20 May 2020

I would never accept a credit card which had that 'Photo ID required' on the back of it. If the customer complained, I'd get the manager involved. Manager would have to ok the transaction if it said Photo ID required so if that transaction was fraudulent somehow (we'd get a monthly statement with bad checks or credit cards), the manager, and not me, would get in trouble, as well they should. I always checked signatures on the back of the card, too.

Posted by:

Ihor Prociuk
20 May 2020

Some credit cards have a feature where you can disable a credit card from an app on your smartphone and then re-enable the card if you find it--assuming that you haven't already contacted the card issuer to report the card lost or stolen.

I've noticed in some cases that automatic payments will continue even if your card has "expired". And I seem to recall that some automatic payments went through for a while even though I got a new card with a different number. I eventually got a notice from the merchant asking me to update my credit card information.

Posted by:

Steven Latus
20 May 2020

Good advice on keeping a document that lists info for cards in your wallet. I've had just such a list for many years. I keep it on an Excel spreadsheet and update it when needed.

Posted by:

20 May 2020

No merchant (in Canada) has ever looked at my card, all we use is tap and/or pin. And checks aren't accepted anywhere anymore.

Posted by:

Robert A.
20 May 2020

Unless one deals with many ma-and-pa shops, where they may still look for a signature on the reverse side of a credit card, virtually ALL stores. these days, use those chip reader card kiosks for charge payments, and the cashier never touches the customer's card. So sign your card, if it makes you feel good, but it's not likely to make a difference, either way.

The best solution is to carry as few cards as possible - one, if possible, since virtually all retailers take the big four cards - Visa, MasterCard, Amex and Discover, or two, if you tend to shop at a retailer that offers some sort of "bonus rewards" that you use for travel of fuel purchases.

A good idea would be to make a simple Excel-type spreadsheet with the issuer's name, account number, date of expiration, and the issuer's 800 toll-free phone number, and keep it with one's personal papers, in the event a card is lost or stolen.

It's also a good idea to keep that card's toll-free number among the list of phone contacts, so you can call them immediately, after loss or theft. You likely don't, and probably shouldn't put your account number in the phone number's associated information page, in case the phone is lost or stolen. When you call the card's help line, the security clerk can find your number quickly, when yo tell them your name, address. etc., and answer a private personal question, generally ubknown to others, such as name of favorite pet, name of your first elementary school, year and make of your first car, etc., the answer to which is on their computer.

Posted by:

Ron Lillquist
20 May 2020

I currently use Free Avast for virus detection and Malwarebytes Premium. Today I received an email from TotalAV suggesting TotalAV for free. Should I download this program as being superior to what I have now?

EDITOR'S NOTE: No, definitely not.

Posted by:

20 May 2020

And if you don't sign your card and someone steals it, they can sign in without having to practice forging your signature.

Posted by:

20 May 2020

"Who writes checks to credit card companies these days?" I almost want to raise my hand.
It seems like we are almost at the bottom of the rabbit-hole and there is no way of turning back.
Such problems should not be the result(s) or "cost of modern life".
I have had only an AX (green) card for 40+ years and it is not even considered a 'credit card'; since it is payable upon (monthly) receipt, which necessitates writing THAT check.
To my surprise, the IRS happens to have the same mentality about credit cards as here. I attempted to create an IRS account but I could not get passed the first credentialing confirmation which requires a ‘credit card’ number yet an AX card is not acceptable credential, according to the IRS website.
I am even okay with not being so intimately connected to the IRS.
Yes, Alice! You don’t need to be on first name basis with Equifax/Experian/TransUnion… even in the 21st Century.

Posted by:

20 May 2020

I don't use credit cards, only debit cards. Anyone have tips on security for those?

Posted by:

Oliver John Fleming
21 May 2020

Probably a little off topic. But if you go to China, they require your card to have a 6 figure pin. I had to use cash until I got a Chinese debit card. Really a PITA.

Posted by:

21 May 2020

My wife & I always put "Pls CK ID" or something similar on the back of credit and debit cards. More often than not our card will be inserted or swiped without the merchant touching it. However, there are many places where the merchant "rings-up" the sale. So, if he or she does notice our message on the back and asks for an ID, we thank them for checking and show an ID. Maybe it's just a feel good issue.

Posted by:

21 May 2020

On the back I write see photo id and this also uses visual comparison.

Posted by:

23 May 2020

As a retired military member, I print a label, using proper font size, that fits the signature area block of my credit cards as follows: "Retired Military-Please Ask for ID." I have been asked for my ID on numerous occasions because of this. I love it.

Posted by:

Ken Driver
23 May 2020

Why don't they require a pin when using a card? I think that would cut down on a lot of theft.

Posted by:

11 Jan 2021

Here in the UK, we've had 'touch-free', or contactless, card transactions for years, using NFC. Max transaction is now £45. Anything over that is "chip and PIN;" No PIN, no transaction. No questions. No idea why they still need a signature on the card... Funnily enough, only my US-based Debit card requires a signature - but that's only because it's then treated as a Credit Card, and gets all the consumer protections.

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