What happens when you don't activate your new credit card?

What happens when you don't activate your new credit card? »Play Video
SEATTLE -- You know the drill. When a new credit card comes in the mail, the big sticker on the front tells you to activate it before you use it.

So you follow the instructions and call the toll-free number. Have you ever wondered if you really need to do that?

Getting a credit card in the mail is no big deal. Sure, someone could snag the card before you get it, but that sticker says the card cannot be used unless activated from your home phone. So you don't worry about it.

That's what i thought until a co-worker here at KOMO told me what happened to him.

When Nate Johnson got his replacement credit card in the mail, he knew what to do -- make the call. As the sticker pointed out, "that's for your protection."

"When I called to activate the card like it says to do on the sticker, it said, 'Error, card has already been activated.' And it caught me by surprise," Johnson said

When he called Bank of America, he was told replacement cards are always sent through the mail already activated.

"It ticks me off. I feel vulnerable," he said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. It didn't make any sense."

Was this an isolated case or common practice? My inquiring mind just had to know. KOMO Newsradio's Lisa Brooks was willing to help. Her new Bank of America visa card had just arrived.

There was that familiar sticker: "to protect you from fraud this card cannot be used until you call from you home phone number."

Brooks didn't do that. Instead, she went to the coffee shop at Fisher Plaza, ordered a large drink and handed over that credit card.

The transaction went through without a hitch.

"Obviously you can use the card. I'm disappointed," Brooks said. "I mean, this comes in my mailbox at my house and now I think I have to get a locking mailbox to keep my card really secure."

Bank of America assured me there was nothing to worry about. Senior Vice President Betty Riess said the bank has various internal security measures in place to catch fraud. Riess said Brooks' purchase went through because it was small and low-risk.

"The vast majority of cards sent out require activation for full and unrestricted use," she said. "The objective is to balance consumer convenience with security."

This pre-activation situation is not limited to one bank. When I got my new AT&T Universal Card from CitiBank, I ignored the sticker, skipped the phone call and headed to my favorite cheese store.

Guess what happened? My purchase was authorized and approved on the other end.

I tried more card, my new CitiCard, an online-only card. The sticker said, "activate your card immediately."

Rather than doing that, I went online and bought a CD from Amazon.com. The total price was $14.12. I got the disc and the charge on my bill.

I called Citibank, told them about my credit card test and asked for a comment. I never got one.

Keep in mind: if someone did steal your mail and snag your credit card and use it, the bank would cover any loss. Even so, it could be a pain.

I have to hope that the bank's computer would catch a significant charge on a card that wasn't activated and deny the transaction.

So why would a bank want you to dial that toll-free number if the card is already live?

If you do call, the bank will know you got the card and any restrictions on the card will be lifted. Many banks also try to sell services like credit card insurance when you call to activate their credit card. No call means no chance to make the sale.