How to respond to a fraud alert

It seems like at least once a year I get an email from my financial institution of choice, telling me that my credit or debit card may or may not have been compromised. The instruction is always this: “Don’t do anything. We’ll send you a new card.”

As far as instructions go, “Don’t do anything” might be my all-time favorite. I appreciate financial institutions being pro-active, and even though changing the information on any linked accounts is a chore, I’m all in favor of the better-safe-than-sorry method.

Still, I wonder sometimes if I actually should be doing something, instead of just sitting around and waiting for my new card to arrive in the mail. I mean, if I’m getting a new card, doesn’t that mean someone else used my credit card information? Has my identity been stolen?

Precautionary measures

When your credit card company tells you that you don’t need to do anything else, that’s probably the case. Very often companies will issue new cards when your account has merely been threatened.

When Target’s database of customer account information was hacked in 2014, Chase alone re-issued over 2 million cards. The move was a precaution. Rather than wait until individual customer accounts were accessed fraudulently, Chase attempted to circumvent the issue by issuing new cards and shutting down the accounts that had been compromised in the hack.

If you receive a new card in the mail, it may very well be a precautionary measure. You should still check the activity on your accounts to make sure no suspicious charges show up.

Locked accounts

Financial institutions are pretty watchful when it comes to potential fraud. That’s a good thing, but it can become a bad thing if you don’t respond when they put a fraud alert on your account.

If the charges on your card suddenly seem very far outside of your normal spending habits, your account may be frozen until a representative can get a hold of you to confirm that the charges are legitimate. That can be especially troublesome if you’re traveling abroad (which is a good reason why you should advise your credit card company ahead of time if you’re about to do some traveling).

If your credit card company needs to talk to you about fraudulent activity, be sure to contact them right away. Be careful about providing any information, however, as scammers may contact you claiming to be your bank. Always use the contact information provided on the back of your credit or debit card.

Take steps to protect yourself

If fraud has occurred and your identity has been compromised, take the following steps to protect your identity, your finances, and your credit history.

  • Contact your creditor. Get in touch with the creditor who is showing the fraudulent activity and advise them of the situation. They may provide additional instructions on what they need from you in order to clear your record and reverse any false charges.
  • Place a fraud alert. Place a fraud alert with one of the three major credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax). Once one has an alert they’ll share that alert with the other two. This should make it significantly more difficult for someone else to open a credit account in your name. The alert lasts for 90 days.
  • File a police report. The police aren’t going to be able to do much for you, in terms of tracking down the thief. You’ll need the report, however, in order to contest any fraudulent charges or accounts.
  • File an identity theft affidavit. Use the FTC’s Complaint Assistant website to create an affidavit describing the incident. Just like the police, the FTC isn’t likely to provide you with any direct assistance, but the affidavit will be an important part of the process when you’re fighting to get that fraudulent information removed from your files.
  • Monitor your accounts and file disputes when necessary. Now you just have to watch your accounts and credit reports closely. If you see incorrect information, dispute it with the applicable entity. This is where the police report and affidavit should help you.

You should take all fraud warnings and alerts seriously. When your accounts have been compromised, act quickly, but also act wisely. Be proactive, but don’t panic and accidentally let a scammer take advantage.

Like almost any illness, identity theft and credit fraud is much easier to prevent than it is to cure. Don’t ignore the warning signs.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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