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.

One news report details a woman charging more than 0 with no problem.

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"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, Am Ex 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?

"Although people think that stealing stuff out of a mailbox is an arcane way of identity theft, actual physical theft is still one of the largest categories of how IDs get stolen." And these days, it's easier than ever.

A potential crook just has to rifle through your mail, grab the envelope with a credit card -- easy to identify because they come in similar envelopes, usually from a processing center, and you can feel the card inside -- and activate the card.

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. When she called for help, a customer service representative reminded her that she had forgotten to activate the new card.

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