Dain Wetterstrand, a schoolteacher in Palm Beach County, Fla., opened her mailbox in June and found a replacement credit card for her daughter, Karen.
"Identity theft is a big scary thing. I know that's what I thought about," Wetterstrand says. "Here's a card coming through the mail to the wrong place. It's been the wrong place for four years. It's lucky it wasn't the terribly wrong place."
Karen, 25, received the original card four years ago, just as she was graduating from college. She has not lived with her mother for four years.
"She doesn't even remember using the card," Wetterstrand says. "The thing that bothered me most was, what if she and I were estranged? I could have activated that card."
Or what if a stranger or a disgruntled former roommate received the card by mistake? If they had access to some of Karen Wetterstrand's personal information, they may have been able to activate the card and start spending.
Protecting your credit
The best way to ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen to you is to notify the issuers of every piece of plastic in your wallet each time you move.
If you haven't used a credit card for quite some time, go ahead and close the account. That way you don't have to worry about a replacement card with your name on it being sent to a stranger's address.
"Inactive credit lines should always be canceled," says Tena Friery, research director with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "It's one of those housekeeping things we all are guilty of neglecting."
Think about it. Have you ever transferred a balance and forgotten about the old card? Ever sign up for a store card for a 10 percent discount and never use it again? The best way to find out is to get a copy of your credit report.
"Consumers need to be aggressive about protecting themselves," says R.B. "Skeet" Rolling, director of fraud control services at TSYS, a global, electronic payment processor in Columbus, Ga.
"Know what's in your credit file."
Card companies catch on
The credit card industry has taken a number of steps to safeguard card replacement procedures. First off, not every card customer is sent a new card when an old one expires.
Most issuers don't do 100-percent activation on all their accounts," Rolling says.
"They evaluate the account and make sure it's in good standing, make sure it's a profitable account. And then they make the decision to reactivate the card."
Every issuer decides a bit differently which customers get replacement cards and when.
For example, Capital One sends out new cards to customers with paid accounts in good standing every two years. New, but yet-to-be activated Capital One cards cannot be forwarded through the U.S. Postal Service. If a Capital One customer is having mail forwarded, the post office sends the card back to Capital One.
"We recode the account to say, 'Don't ship any new cards unless the customer calls,'" says Diana Sun, a spokeswoman for Capital One.
First USA, the card unit of Bank One, also keeps a close eye on customer accounts. If a card has not been used for a year, the account is deemed inactive and purged from First USA files.
"First USA does automatic purges, so the information on the account is taken out of the computer file and put in inactive status," says Stan Lata, a spokesman for Bank One. "To have access to the credit line again, they'd have to re-apply."
Some First USA accounts are deemed inactive after just six months. Only active First USA accounts receive replacement cards.
First USA places a sticker with a toll-free number on every new credit card sent through the mail. The customer must call the number to activate the card. This kind of card activation procedure is standard in the card industry.
If a customer calls from a phone number listed in their First USA account, the call will be sent to automated voice response system.
"You'll be asked to punch in secured information that only a cardholder would know such as the last four digits of their Social Security number," Lata says.
If a customer calls to activate a card from a phone number not listed in their card account, the call will be sent to a First USA representative who will ask a series of questions.
The aim of these kinds of safeguards is to ensure that only the person who actually applied for the card can activate it.
But none of these procedures will prevent a stranger or even a family member that gains access to your personal information such as Social Security number, date of birth, mother's maiden name etc. from applying and activating credit cards in your name.
Manage your mail
An identity thief could also swipe a new credit card from your mailbox.
"It would be relatively easy for an identity thief to intercept the card," Friery says.
"Information is stolen from mailboxes all the time."
That's why identity theft experts urge consumers to put locks on their mailboxes.
When you're due to receive a new credit card, keep an eye on your mailbox and the calendar. If the card doesn't arrive on schedule, call your issuer to find out when the card was sent. If the issuer sent the card more than 10 days ago and it still hasn't arrive at your home, it's a good idea to cancel the card.
Get in the habit of reviewing your credit report once a year. Request a copy of your credit file from each of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.
Close any unused credit lines. It's best to contact a credit card company in writing. Ask the issuer to note in any statement to a credit bureau that the account was closed at the customer's request. An issuer will send you a written confirmation once an account is closed.
Buy a shredder and destroy bills, pre-approved credit offers and other documents with personal information before throwing them out.
Notify credit card issuers each time you change your address. This small step can make a world of difference. Just ask Linda Foley, director of the Identity Theft Resource Center and a former identity theft victim.
Foley contacted Citibank Visa every time she moved. When a second address for Foley showed up on a credit report, Citibank contacted Foley to see if she had moved. She hadn't. An impostor had been applying for credit in Foley's name for two months.
"Citibank was the reason I was able to catch it so quickly," Foley says. "I never would have caught it otherwise. I never checked my credit report. I didn't know I had to."