How to recover from credit card fraud

Last November, I got a text message from my credit card company notifying me about a $160.92 charge on my card. Within minutes, I got a text for another charge for $443.85.

I had signed up through my account online to receive alerts when transactions were made with my card. The alerts are sent as a text message as soon as a transaction is made. So when I got those messages, I knew something was wrong because I hadn’t purchased anything that day.

I quickly logged onto my account online to see if perhaps they were charges that had gone through for automatic payments linked to my card, such as my electricity bill. But they were for retailers I’d never heard of.

Ugh (actually, I said something a little worse than ugh)! My credit card number had been stolen, and someone was using it to go on a spending spree.

This wasn’t the first time my credit card information was stolen, however. My actual card was plucked from my wallet years ago while I was chatting to a vendor at a crowded outdoor market. So, I had experience dealing with credit card theft and knew exactly what to do when I discovered the recent fraudulent charges. (Plus, it helps to be a personal finance journalist who’s learned about credit card fraud and theft through the course of writing articles.)

I still don’t know how someone got my credit card number. But, here’s what I did to limit the damage, bounce back quickly and lower the chance of becoming a victim again. If you become a victim of credit or debit card fraud, follow these steps.

1. I Acted Quickly to Report the Fraud and Cancel My Card

I actually was at a visitation for a family member who died when I got the text messages about the charges. But I didn’t want to wait to deal with it and give the thief more time to rack up charges. So, I called my credit card company immediately.

I followed the prompts to be connected to the card company’s fraud department and told the representative that I suspected fraudulent charges had been made. She reviewed my recent charges, and I pinpointed the ones I hadn’t made. She flagged them for investigation, and I asked to cancel my card so no more charges could be made. I then asked to have a new card mailed to me.

It’s important to report a stolen credit or debit card — or card number — quickly to limit your liability for unauthorized charges, according to the Federal Trade Commission. With a credit card, you have more protections. The most you’ll have to pay for unauthorized credit card charges is $50. I didn’t have to pay for any of the unauthorized charges.

But if you don’t report the unauthorized use of a debit card fast enough, you could be on the hook for a lot more. Your maximum liability is $50 if you report fraudulent transactions within two business days after you learn about them. After that, your liability jumps to $500 if you don’t report the fraud within 60 calendar days after your statement is sent to you. Beyond 60 days, you might not get any of the money back that was stolen through fraudulent purchases.

2. I Filed a Report With the Police

I reported my credit card fraud to the local police not because I expected them to catch the thief but to have a report of the incident. An incident report from a law enforcement agency can be helpful in contesting fraudulent charges. And, it can be used to prove you’re a victim of identity theft so you can get a credit freeze placed on your credit reports for free, which is when the report I filed came in handy (more on that below).

3. I Checked My Credit Report for Other Signs of Fraud

Because someone used my card number rather than my actual card, it could’ve meant they got it through a data breach and had other personal information about me that could be used to steal my identity. So, I wanted to make sure I hadn’t become a victim of any other types of fraud by checking my credit report for suspicious activity or unauthorized accounts opened in my name.

You can check your credit report for free once a year from all three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you find errors, alert the credit bureau to dispute them. Fortunately, I didn’t find any signs of fraudulent activity on my reports.

4. I Placed a Freeze on My Credit Report

Just because I didn’t see anything fishy on my credit reports, that didn’t mean I was in the clear. Credit or debit card fraud victims are often encouraged to call one of the three credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on their credit report. It’s free, and the bureau must report the alert to the two other bureaus.

The alert requires lenders to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name, so it can help protect you from unauthorized accounts being opened in your name. But it only lasts 90 days and works only if businesses make the effort to verify your identity.

I wanted more protection, so I put a credit freeze on my credit reports. It prevents creditors — other than ones you have accounts with — from accessing your credit report, which lenders need to extend a new line of credit. So, it’s stronger protection against unauthorized accounts being opened in your name.

You have to place a freeze on your credit report with each of the three credit bureaus. There’s typically a $5 to $10 charge, depending on the state where you live, and you have to pay again to have the freeze lifted. However, most states allow ID theft victims with a copy of a police report documenting that someone else used your personal information to place a credit or security freeze on their reports for free. I needed a police report to prove I was a victim to get a freeze free of charge.

I wanted the extra protection for two reasons: 1) I was unsure how the thief got my credit card information, and 2) My debit card number was used fraudulently within a couple of weeks after the credit card incident.

5. I Responded to Every Letter I Got From the Credit Card Company

My credit card company sent me several letters after I reported the fraud on my account. If you’re a victim, don’t ignore any communication from your credit company.

The letters I got required me to verify that I hadn’t made the charges by signing a statement and replying within 10 days from the date of the letters. The letters stated that my reply was necessary to continue disputing the transactions and avoid being charged for them.

A few days after mailing my replies, I called the number listed on the letters to make sure my response had been received.

6. I Signed Up for Credit Monitoring

To keep tabs on my credit report, I signed up for Credit Karma’s free credit monitoring service. It notifies me when there are any changes to my report, such as a new account opened in my name. Other sites such as Credit.com and CreditSesame.com offer a similar free service.

For more protection — such as monitoring the black market for your data — you can pay for identity theft monitoring from a service such as Identity Guard, which charges $19.99 per month, or LifeLock, which charges $29.99 per month, for their most-comprehensive plans.

7. I Check My Credit Card Account Weekly

As I mentioned, I get text-message alerts from my credit card company when charges are made, which helped my spot the fraudulent charges last November. Today, those alerts still help me keep tabs on my account, but I also log onto my account weekly — rather than wait for a monthly statement — to make sure there aren’t any unfamiliar charges or errors. Fortunately (and, hopefully, thanks to my efforts to avoid becoming a victim again), I haven’t seen any.

Because I acted quickly, I wasn’t liable for any of the unauthorized charges made to my credit card account. The process of disputing the charges was finalized in about two months after receiving and responding to letters from my credit card company. And activating a credit freeze on my credit reports with all three credit bureaus took less than an hour. I consider myself fortunate that I caught the fraud quickly and bounced back relatively fast.

From GoBankingRates.com: How I bounced back from credit card fraud

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