Few financial moments are scarier than the realization your bank account has been compromised. Adding to the stress is pressure on you to report the fraud as soon as you notice it. If you delay or don’t notice it for months, you could lose everything you have in the account. The sooner you contact your bank, the sooner you can rest easy that your hard-earned money is safe from further thievery.

Pick Up the Phone

Call the bank as soon as you notice fraudulent activity or go to your nearest branch to do so. Most have toll-free numbers that can be found on the back of your ATM card if you still have it or on your monthly statements if you don’t. Report that your account has been compromised and detail the fraudulent charges you’ve noticed. This reporting of the incident stops the clock, so you won’t be liable for any transactions that take place after the call.

Get It in Writing

After reporting the call, follow up with your bank in writing. Some banks accept email. For others, send a letter confirming the fraudulent activity. Detail what the false charges are, when you noticed them and who you talked to over the phone. Sending the letter via certified mail gives you proof the letter was received and the added cost may be worth the peace of mind.

Follow Up

Even after reporting the fraud, check your statement for errors. Review your checkbook to see if any checks are missing. If they are, issue stop payment orders with the bank. If an identity thief or unauthorized company has arranged for unauthorized transfers out of the account, alert your bank and ask it to close your account and open a new one with a different account number.

Contact Credit Bureaus

A fraud on your bank account may indicate that you’ve been a victim of identity theft. If so, place a fraud alert on your credit report with Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. You can call all three if you want, but once you place a fraud alert with one, it’s required to inform the others. Placing an initial fraud alert requires prospective creditors to take reasonable steps to confirm the identity of anyone seeking to open accounts in your name, including contacting you by phone if you provide a number. Extended alerts are good for seven years, but they require you to file a report with the police or an identity theft report with a government agency, such as the Federal Trade Commission.

Liability Limits

If you discover your ATM card has been lost or stolen, your liability is based on how quickly the incident is reported. According to the Federal Trade Commission, if you catch the fraud before any charges take place, you’re not liable for a thing, even if fraudulent transactions subsequently take place. If you report it within two days after learning about it, your liability is capped at $50. If it’s between three and 60 days, you can lose up to $500, while if you don’t report it for more than two months you can lose everything in the account. You can't plead ignorance forever -- if the fraudulent charges have appeared on your statement, it's presumed that you were notified of the activity when you received it. If it’s just your card number that’s been compromised and you still have the card in your possession, you’re not liable for unauthorized transactions for 60 days after the statement with the first fraudulent transactions was sent to you.