The Woeful Tale of a Waylaid Wallet

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Things to think about before you lose yours.
by Maureen Rooney

I can’t say for sure whether my wallet was lost or stolen. All I do know for certain is that whoever “found it” helped themselves to the contents.

This tale begins with an early morning call from my credit card company. It continues through a week of my life, calling and visiting everyone remotely related to the contents of my wallet. It starts like this:

“Ms. Rooney? This is Julio from MBNA fraud detection. Did you buy gas with your credit card last night?”

“Huh?” I responded brilliantly, not fully awake yet.

“You don’t normally buy gas on your Visa. I’m calling to make sure you have it in your possession.”

I mumbled something, hopefully, “Hold on a minute,” and went in search of my purse.

“My wallet is missing,” I told Julio, as I began a mental inventory of its contents:

  • Credit cards (one Visa; one MasterCard)
  • Debit card
  • Driver’s license
  • Health insurance card
  • Library card
  • About 50 dollars in cash and a phone card (kissed goodbye)

Cancel your credit cards.
Apparently, it is not uncommon for credit card thieves to try a stolen (or found) card at a gas pump to see if it is active, so the fraud detection folks watch for that. I last had my wallet in my hands at 7:00 pm and just 12 hours later, I was chatting with Julio. Fraud detection has gotten good.

Julio ran through recent charges with me, identifying the last one that was mine and then closed my Visa account. I asked him to check my MasterCard (also with the same company) and he found a gas charge on that one, too. He closed it.

I only carry two credit cards in my wallet. My department store cards are filed safely away until I need them. I recommend you do the same. The fewer cards you have in your wallet, the fewer you’ll need to cancel and reopen should you encounter a thief.

Julio told me that my new cards would arrive in 5 days and recommended that I add password protection to the accounts. (The password would replace the standard mother’s-maiden-name since a thief with a few research skills could uncover that with just a bit of patience.)

“What else was in your wallet?” Julio asked me.

Shut down your debit card as soon as possible.
I live on my debit card, so canceling my card was going to be a major inconvenience, I thought. But my credit union was great. When I called to tell them the card was stolen, they closed it, and told me that I could come into the branch office and get an immediate replacement. I let out a sigh of relief.

They checked for the last transaction. Luckily, it was mine. If it hadn’t been, I would have been liable for the first $50 of the fraud spree as long as I reported it missing within 48 hours. Don’t delay in reporting a missing debit card or the stakes get higher. It could also be a nightmare to get your account back in order if your thief has enough time to shop until he’s debited your account balance down to zero.

I asked to have password protection added to all bank accounts, including my new debit card, replacing my mother’s maiden name with a word that no thief would be able to find. (Don’t use the last 4 numbers of your social security number, your phone number, your birthday, or anything else that might be obvious to a thief.)

Put a fraud alert on your credit files.
Julio recommended that I place a fraud alert with the three credit reporting agencies. Since the new FACT Act went into effect this year, it has gotten easier to do this. The Federal Trade Commission offers helpful step-by-step information by phone or online:

FTC ID Theft toll-free Hotline: 1-877-438-4338

I called the first Credit Reporting Agency (CRA) on the list of numbers Julio provided. By calling any one of the CRAs and providing your SS number, date of birth, street address, zip code, and home phone number, you can place an immediate alert on all your credit files. The one you call will share the report with all the others.

CRA toll-free 24-hour fraud assistance hotlines:

Equifax 1-800-525-6285
Experian 1-888-397-3742
Trans Union 1-800-680-7289

A fraud alert makes it harder for thieves in possession of your personal information to open new credit in your name. New credit won’t be granted until the creditor calls the number you provide to verify that it’s really you opening accounts. This will make it a bit harder for you to open new credit on the spot, too (but that’s not entirely a bad thing. If the urge to impulsively open new credit strikes, it will be squelched by the fraud alert. And by the time you get home to confirm by phone, perhaps the urge will have passed!)

All three CRAs will send free credit reports when you place an alert on your file so you can check to see that nothing unseemly has already transpired. (Mine were in my mailbox just 5 days later.) It is recommended that you pull your reports every three months for a year, then once a year in the future. Why? Because accounts may take a while to appear on your reports. And smart thieves will file your information away for a while, then use it in the future to open fraudulent accounts once you’ve forgotten all about it.

File a police report
It’s wise to report the theft to your local police and get a copy of the police report, Julio advised. Hopefully, you’ll never need it. But it will make it easier to prove that future credit card charges are not your liability should your thief decide to use your identity in the future.

Your driver’s license
Not long ago, Arizona used my Social Security number as my driver’s license number. When they offered the option to use a different number, I jumped on it. If your driver’s license includes your SS number (in addition to your birthday and address), a thief has everything he needs to help himself to your credit.

If your state still uses SSNs as the drivers license number, ask for a different number. If the clerk says no, ask for a supervisor. Sometimes the first person you talk to just answers by rote. If the answer is still no, Xerox your diver’s license, blackout the SSN, and carry the copy. Leave your original file away in a safe place.

Your Social Security card
I assured Julio that my social security number wasn’t in my wallet. “Good,” he said, “You should never carry your Social Security card in your wallet.” A Social Security number makes it easier for a thief to apply for credit or otherwise fraudulently use your identity. My Social Security card has never been in my wallet, but my number-I now realize-was in my wallet. In several places.

Health insurance cards
If your health insurance plan uses your Social Security number as a member ID number, it’s probably on your insurance card. Mine, unfortunately, was. When I called to get a replacement card, the representative was stumped by my request for a different ID number. She couldn’t even fathom why I might care.

California, as is often the case, is leading the way with a recently enacted law barring health care providers from requiring SSNs for access to products or services, from printing SSNs on cards, or from printing SSN on any materials that are mailed. In April 2004, Arizona passed new legislation (HB 2116 and HB 2382) that will similarly restrict the use of SSNs for all Arizonans beginning January 1, 2005 “on any card required for the individual to receive products and services.” I had to point this out to my membership rep before she would send me the necessary form to request a different number. Be patient and persistent.

In the meantime, if you are unable to get your insurance plan to change your number, photocopy your card, blackout your SSN, and carry the copy. You can then give a health care provider your number separately.

Student IDs
I haven’t been a student in years, but I clearly remember how often I had to provide my Social Security number when I was in school. Back then, it served as the ID number on my student ID card. Before my freshman year was out, my SSN was indelibly etched in my memory.

The state of New York already limits the use of SSNs in schools and colleges. Arizona legislation now provides similar protections in this state. If your school prints your SSN on your student ID or posts grades by SSN, get vocal and get that practice changed. It’s a bad practice that makes you a mark for opportunistic identity thieves.

I didn’t have a student ID in my wayward wallet, but I did have a “guest library card” from my alma mater. It never even occurred to me that my library card was emblazoned with my SSN.

Library cards
My replacement “guest library card” from the university will not have my Social Security number on it, thanks to new Arizona legislation. If yours does, ask for one that doesn’t.

Close your library card account. Heaven forbid your clever thief checks out expensive art books on your card to sell at the swap meet. This does happen, according to my librarian, although it is more often CDs, DVDs, and videotapes that go missing from the library shelves this way.

Be smart. Take precautions.
If you don’t have a passport filed safely away somewhere, make a copy of your drivers license to keep in your secured files. You will need a photo ID to replace your missing drivers license, debit cards, etc.

Guard your personal information jealously. If anyone asks for your social security number, say you’d prefer not to give it. Oftentimes, that is a good enough answer. In addition, many credit cards and the new passports issued by the US this year (2008) will contain an RFID (radio frequency ID) chip, making it easy for a thief to steal your info without laying hands on your wallet. For more info, read this post on RFID chips.

Some businesses (health insurance and auto insurance, to name just two) will not do anything for you without your SSN. To get their coverage, you have to provide it. But ask them not to use it on membership cards and not to print it on anything they mail to you.

If you suspect someone is fraudulently using your Social Security number, call the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338) or go online to the FTC Web site and fill out an identity theft affidavit.

I sincerely hope your wallet never goes wandering as mine did. But on the off chance that it could, be smart about the information you will be sharing with your thieves.

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