"Very few banks send out a card that can't be used, at least in low-risk situations," says Scott Stevenson, founder and CEO of Eliminate ID Theft, a credit protection service. "But I'd bet most Americans think you cannot use a card unless you call and activate it."
'It went through'
Linda Pack of Norfolk, Va., is one of the few who already knew that activation wasn't necessary. "I was fairly sure that it would work because, as an insurance agent, I've set up payments via a credit card over the phone, and we were allowed to set up the payments with cards that were not yet activated." So when she got a renewal credit card that required an activation phone call, she went ahead and used it anyway. "I just changed the card information on Amazon.com, made a purchase, and it went through."
Other cardholders have used inactivated cards to buy cosmetics, clothing and restaurant meals. One news report details a woman charging more than $200 with no problem.
Keep on shopping
While certain card issuers, including Discover and Wells Fargo, mail cards that can't be used without activation, some, such as Capital One and Bank of America, may allow small purchases -- a coffee at Starbucks, for instance, or an online buy. Still others, reluctant to slow down a dedicated shopper, will allow a handful of purchases before you're forced to activate. "In the card world, there's a lot of issuer discretion, so this is one of those things where there's no hard and fast rule," says Peter Ho, product manager for card services and consumer lending at Wells Fargo.
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Chances are, you'll never know whether your card comes locked-down or ready to use unless you give it a try, as did Eva Graham, of Newington, Conn.. She charged a few purchases, problem-free, using a newly arrived American Express card -- a replacement for one she had lost. After a few days, the card was suddenly declined. When she called for help, a customer service representative reminded her that she had forgotten to activate the new card. "I then asked them why I was able to make the prior charges, and they told me they were allowed to go through as a courtesy. It did worry me a bit that I was able to use it without activating; however, AmEx is very good when there is a disputed charge."
The sticker solution
So if nonactivation doesn't necessarily paralyze your card, why do card issuers bother with that tiny sticker that orders you to call and activate?
Cynics would say the likely reason is that your phone call to activate your credit card provides your bank a golden opportunity to sell you something. Once they have you on the phone, bank customer service representatives often launch into an extended sales spiel offering such add-ons as theft protection and credit monitoring.
Count Lauren Kolbe, of St. Louis, as one of the activation skeptics. "We have a credit card, which routinely seems to be compromised in some way, according to the credit card company, so they cancel the card and send us new ones," she says. "Of course, when we call to activate the new cards, there is always a sales pitch along the lines of, 'Since your card was compromised, you should sign up for all of the identity protection services we offer.' It happens so frequently that my husband and I are beginning to think they're just doing this so that you have to call them, then they try to sell you stuff."