You're looking for your debit card to pay for your morning latte when you realize that it's not there. You search frantically for this all-important piece of plastic, only to come up empty. Maybe you left it in the pocket of yesterday's jeans -- or maybe it was stolen.

Unfortunately, debit cards don't come with the strong fraud protections you get with credit cards. Federal law limits liability for a stolen or lost debit card, but only if you quickly report the loss. If you contact your bank about the loss within two business days, you'll be liable for only up to $50. Wait a bit longer and your liability rises to $500. But if you don't report the loss for more than 60 days after receiving your statement, you'll be on the hook for all of the fraudulent charges, as this chart from the Federal Trade Commission shows.

What to do now
If your debit card was stolen, report it to your bank or credit union immediately. Make sure the bank cancels your debit card and sends you a new card with a new number.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends following up your phone call with a letter or email to your bank. Be sure to include your account number, the date and time you noticed that your card was missing, and the date and time you first reported the loss by phone.

If you think you've misplaced your card, check your recent transactions. Cancel your card immediately if you discover charges you didn't make.

But if you don't find anything unusual, ask your bank to temporarily suspend your account. It's not as inconvenient as replacing your card. Some banks, including Centier Bank and Simple, now let you freeze your card through a mobile app.

If you can't temporarily suspend your card, you'll have to decide if you should cancel the card or do nothing while you search for it. The level of risk depends on how likely it is that your card was stolen or how quickly you can find your card. But if you can't track it down within a few hours, it's best to cancel the card to limit your liability for any charges.

Report fraudulent transactions
Debit-card holders must provide detailed information about unauthorized debit and ATM transactions as soon as possible, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s website.

In other words, it's not enough to report that your debit card was lost or stolen. You also need to report specific fraudulent transactions or risk paying for them.

When you report fraudulent activity, first call, and then write an email or a letter. In the note, include your account information, specifics on the fraudulent transactions, and the date and time you originally called to report the activity.

Your bank typically has 10 business days to investigate the reported transactions and another three days to report its findings to you in writing, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If the investigation isn't finished within 10 days, the bank is required to temporarily credit your account for the amount of the disputed transaction, minus up to a $50 charge. The bank has 90 days to resolve the issue.

In the meantime, you could be stuck with an empty bank account and without a debit card.

In the future
Once you've lived the nightmare of a lost or stolen debit card, you'll never want to go there again. Here's how to reduce your risk of future debit card losses:

  • Opt out of overdraft protection. If your account balance drops to zero and you don't have overdraft protection, your card will be declined. This at least keeps thieves from overdrawing your account -- and hitting you with a ton of overdraft charges
  • Don't link your accounts. To block overdrafts from coming out of your savings, think twice before linking your emergency fund to your checking account. Linking accounts gives thieves access to both.
  • Keep your bank's information accessible. You won't have the customer service number printed on the back of your debit card when your card is lost or stolen. Write that information down somewhere safe, so you can get to it quickly.
  • Monitor transactions. If you haven't already, set up online access to your checking account and each week take a look at your transactions. 

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