Lost your credit card? Your credit report can help

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
I had a credit card, but I don't know where it is. I don't even know what bank it was with or what my account number is. It makes me nervous having it out there, so what should I do? -- Forgetful Dad

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Forgetful,
So often when people write to me with their credit and money issues, I have to break it to them that the solutions may be difficult or time-consuming. It's a pleasure, therefore, to respond that yours is an easy and fast problem to solve.

To locate that lost account, simply log on to AnnualCreditReport.com and pull a copy of your credit report from any of the three major credit reporting bureaus. The process is free and safe. Once you have the report -- which you can view online and then download for your records -- scan it carefully. You should see the credit card in question pretty quickly, and I bet your memory of it will come flooding back. There will be a lot of information on the report about that account, including the date you opened it, if there is a remaining balance and whether it's active or inactive. 

In the event the account is still active (possibly listed as "open" on the report), contact the credit card company and request a replacement card be sent to you. When it arrives, immediately make a copy of the front and back of the card, and store the paperwork in a safe and private place. You will be grateful for this effort if your wallet is ever stolen or misplaced, and you need to protect yourself against fraudulent charges. If the account is closed and you'd like to begin again, give the creditor a call and ask if you can open a new account. Since they approved you the first time around, they may the second. 

Now for the broader matter: It sounds like you had -- and possibly still have -- some trouble keeping track of your financial affairs. If so, address it now, since letting it all go can lead to unexpected troubles. With the credit report still in hand or on screen, look for anything that seems amiss, including accounts that you never opened or that have unusually high balances. If someone accessed your card or account numbers, they could have charged on it or even used the information gleaned from it to take out loans and lines of credit in your name.

Spot evidence of identity theft? Here's what to do:

  1. Report the crime to your creditor.
  2. File a police report.
  3. Notify the credit reporting bureaus and request that a "fraud alert" be entered on your file.

After that, make a point of always knowing your cards' whereabouts. Chances are you will be pulling it out to swipe at ATMs, make purchases and hand it to all sorts of cashiers and waiters. It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and simply walk away without it. The only way to prevent this from happening is to become hyper-vigilant.

Create some kind of routine where you always do something after getting the credit card back. For example, you could check your watch or pop a mint in your mouth each time you replace the card in your wallet. According to common wisdom, it takes just 21 days to develop a good habit -- so in less than a month you can adopt a practice that will ensure your account's safety. While you're in change mode, adopt one other smart routine: Always check your balance before charging. Do so and you will be far less apt to spend more than you can afford to repay.

With credit comes responsibility, Dad. If you don't hang onto it and use it right, you could be out a lot of time and money.

See related: 10 things you must know about credit reports and scores8 legitimate ways to improve your credit score now, How to read, understand your credit report, How to dispute errors on your credit report, Free credit reports: How to get the one that's actually free, How to cancel a credit card the right way

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Updated: 02-18-2019