Lost a Debit Card or Credit Card? Find Out What to Do Quickly

Lost Purse
••• Paul Germanos/E+/Getty Images

A lost or stolen debit card is an anxiety-producing event—and for good reason. If somebody uses that card, funds come out of your bank account immediately. So, what do you need to do? Act fast, and this will be behind you before you know it.

We’ll discuss the details below, but the most important things to know are:

  1. Contact your bank immediately to prevent unauthorized charges on your card
  2. The sooner you act, the more you may have to pay if somebody uses your card fraudulently. Notifying the card issuer limits your losses.

In a worst-case scenario, a thief can use the card to drain your bank account, but that doesn’t stop your regular bills from coming in. If your account goes empty, checks will bounce, and you may fail to make automatic payments. You’ll have to pay penalties, and your bank will add to the pain with overdraft charges. What’s more, scammers may find a way to spend more than you even have in your account.

You can avoid that scenario by following the steps below.

Contact Your Bank

Contact your bank immediately once you know that the card is missing (if it’s been stolen, or if you’re unable to find a misplaced card quickly). Ideally, you have online access to your account or a bank statement handy with your card issuer’s phone number. Logging in to your account online or using your bank’s app is especially helpful, as it allows you to see if anybody used the card since you lost it, and you might even be able to disable the card immediately.

If you must, you can do a web search for your card issuer’s website, but beware of impostor websites that may have been set up with the goal of catching worried consumers (who are in a hurry to hand over personal information like a Social Security Number because they don’t have a card number handy). Be sure to click around a little bit to make sure you’re at a legitimate website free of major technical, spelling, or grammatical errors. Heed any security warnings from your web browser.

In some cases, you might not be able to reach your bank directly (bank holidays, weekends, and financial institutions with limited hours, for example). But card issuers may contract with service providers who can freeze your card, and you have to follow up with your bank during business hours.

What to Say

Inform your card issuer that you do not have your card, and that it’s either lost or stolen. If you notice any unauthorized transactions online, be sure to let them know. If you simply lost the card (and you’re not aware that anybody stole it), ask about a temporary freeze. The issuer may be able to disable the card for a few days in case it turns up somewhere. Some card issuers don’t offer temporary freezes, so it may be necessary to cancel and reissue the card.

It’s a good idea to follow up with your card issuer in writing, especially if you’re worried about somebody using the card fraudulently. Send a letter to the issuer explaining that you do not have the card and requesting a cancelation. Be sure to include the date on the letter, and use a delivery service that will confirm that the letter was delivered (USPS return receipt, or a delivery service tracking number).

Cancel Automatic Billing

Now that your card is disabled, notify anybody who might legitimately try to use the card. Billers might take payments from the card automatically each month, but those payments won’t go through anymore. Let your billers know this ahead of time, and provide a replacement card number so that you can avoid fees and inconveniences.

In some cases, your bank might allow a few more charges to come through if those charges were regularly hitting the card previously (for the past six months, for example). This gives you a little extra time to update everything, but check with your bank to be sure.

How Bad Can Things Get?

Now that you’ve secured the card against fraudulent use, you may wonder how much this event will cost you. It’s most likely that your only cost will be a fee paid to your card issuer for a replacement card.

If somebody uses the card fraudulently, your liability depends on how quickly you act. The Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA) says that you’re not responsible for any charges after you notify your bank that the card is missing. If any transactions go through before you tell the bank, you can limit your losses to $50 as long as you notify the bank within two days of realizing that the card is missing. If you go past the two-day mark, your risk increases to $500—but you still have to notify the bank that your card is missing within 60 days after the bank sends your statement.

If you fail to notify the bank within 60 days, your liability is unlimited: Thieves can drain your account and exhaust any lines of credit available, and you’re out of luck unless you have a good reason for failing to notify the bank (for example, you were hospitalized).

As you can see, the faster you act, the safer you are.

What if you are responsible for fraudulent charges? Thieves may use the card before you contact the bank to disable it. You can always ask your card issuer to cancel those transactions, but banks don’t have to accommodate your request. If you end up having to absorb charges, contact your insurance agent to find out if your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy will cover any of your losses.