Despite high-profile media attention, the odds of having your credit or debit card number stolen by crooks remains at historically low levels. That said, it’s always good to know what to do in case lightning does strike and someone fraudulently uses your card. Left unchecked, they might try to run up bills, drain your checking account or worse — steal your identity.

Here are actions to take if this happens to you:

First, contact the bank or credit union that issued your card. You’ll find a toll-free number on the back of your card, on your billing statement or at the company’s website. Close the compromised account and open a new one with a different account number. Change related passwords or PIN numbers and notify companies that have automatic payments tied to the closed account to make sure you don’t miss a payment. Also log all calls, letters and emails you have with your card issuer about the fraud — this will be helpful if you need to file a claim or police report.

Contact one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax (888-766-0008), Experian (888-397-3742) or TransUnion (800-680-7289), and place an initial fraud alert on your credit file if you suspect you have been, or are about to be, a victim of identity theft. Whichever bureau you contact will notify the other two to do the same. If you wish, you can renew these fraud alerts each quarter, free of charge. If you determine that you actually have suffered identity theft, you can also file an extended fraud alert, which will stay on your reports for seven years.

Placing a fraud alert entitles you to one free credit report from each bureau. Although the alert makes it harder for someone to open new credit accounts in your name, it won’t necessarily prevent them from using existing accounts. That’s why it’s important to close compromised accounts and to carefully review your credit reports for errors, fraudulent activity, or suspicious credit inquiries from an unfamiliar source. Also be aware that posting a fraud alert could delay your own ability to obtain new credit.

If you determine someone has stolen from your account or your identity has otherwise been compromised, file an identity theft report with the police. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Defend: Recover From Identity Theft” website contains step-by-step instructions for completing and filing the report with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies (

Also send copies of the report — by certified mail, return requested — to the credit bureaus and companies whose accounts were impacted. You can also file a complaint with the FTC, which will enter the information into a secure online database shared by thousands of civil and criminal law-enforcement authorities worldwide (

Most card issuers provide “zero liability” coverage for unauthorized credit and debit card use when you promptly report the loss. Rules vary, so ask your bank or credit union for its policies.

Going forward, carefully monitor your monthly credit card and bank statements for fraudulent charges. To learn other good tips for protecting your personal and account information and preventing fraud, go to:

The National Cyber Security Alliance’s

The FBI’s “Be Crime Smart” page (

Visa Inc.’s VisaSecuritySense (, which contains tips on preventing fraud online, in stores and at ATMs, spotting deceptive marketing practices, and more.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at PracticalMoney.