One of the worst feelings is reaching for your wallet and finding it's not there. Panic ensues: Did you leave it at home? Drop it? Were you the victim of a pickpocket? Following our advice won't salve that panic, but it may lessen it.
If your wallet is stuffed fat with personal and financial information, know that much of that information can be exploited by identity thieves. All the bad guys need to get started is your name and Social Security number. That alone can lead to bogus loan applications and the opening of fraudulent accounts. It can get worse if they can steal from your wallet your government-issued photo ID and doctor the image.
Test your password knowledge
We reached out to consumer protection experts to identify the things you should immediately purge from your wallet. Oh, and one quick tip before we dive in: Photocopy the front and back of whatever remains in your wallet. That way, if your wallet is lost or stolen, you can at least quickly and easily file reports with the appropriate government agencies and financial institutions.
Social Security card
Losing your Social Security number is a sure ticket to identity theft. Once stolen, rogue identity thieves could use that number to get loans in your name or obtain credit cards. For that reason, identity theft experts say, never carry your Social Security card -- or even a piece of paper with your Social Security number on it. If you need it for one-off identification purposes -- say, closing on a home loan or filing for benefits -- go home directly from that appointment and stow it in a secure location.
That task done, make sure nothing else in your wallet has your Social Security number on it, including other forms of identification. States can no longer display your SSN on newly issued driver's licenses, state ID cards and motor-vehicle registrations. However, if you still have any old photo IDs with your Social Security number on them, request a new ID immediately. Even if there's an additional fee, it's worth it to protect your identity.
Password cheat sheet
We all have them, someplace: password cheat sheets. That's because the average American uses at least seven different passwords to access everything from ATMs to credit card accounts. The smart play, experts say, is to have individual passwords made up of unique combinations of numbers, letters and symbols that you change regularly. But how do you remember them all? For 73% of people, according to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, it's a cheat sheet. And one of the worst places for a password cheat sheet with your ATM card's PIN is your wallet.
There are better options: If you have to keep passwords jotted down somewhere, keep them in a locked box in your house. You should also explore a digital password manager. One to consider is LastPass. The basic service is free, or you can upgrade to the premium version for $3 per month.
It's also a good idea to enable two-factor authentication on any account that allows you to. You'll enter your username and password as usual, but the account will then confirm your identity by asking you to enter a code that has been sent to your smartphone or e-mail address.
A lost wallet is bad enough. A lost wallet containing your spare house key along with your ID that shows your home address is an invitation for real-world thieves to break into your home. Security experts say don't put your property, and your family, at risk. (And even if your home isn't robbed after losing a spare key, you'll likely spend over $100 to pay a locksmith to change the locks for peace of mind.)
The best move is to keep your spare key with a relative or friend. If you're ever locked out, it may take a little bit longer to retrieve your backup key, but that's a relatively minor inconvenience.
Old school, yes, but some of us still write checks, though far fewer than back in the day. And for emergency purposes, our parents said, carry a blank check in your wallet, "just in case." That's not good advice.
Blank checks are risky. In the wrong hands, a blank check could be used to quickly drain money from your bank account. And even if the stolen check isn't used, the check has on it your bank account and routing numbers, a target for electronic withdrawals from your account. To pile on, that blank check will also likely have your home address on it (and some people have added their Social Security numbers, too, another no-no).
The better option: Only carry with you the check or checks you think you might need immediately, and leave the checkbook at home.
A passport, like any government-issued photo ID, can be a weapon used against your finances if it falls into the wrong hands, ID-theft experts warn. It could be used to travel in your name, get a new copy of your Social Security card or open bank accounts. If you're thinking, "Who carries their passport book in their wallet?" there are passport wallets with slots for cash, credit cards and more.
When traveling in the U.S., have with you only your driver's license or other personal ID. Leave your passport book and wallet-size passport card in a secure place such as a fire-proof home safe. When traveling abroad, experts advise, carry a photocopy of your passport and leave the original in a hotel safe.
Multiple credit cards
You could slim down that fat wallet by rolling with fewer credit cards in it. That way, if your wallet is lost or stolen, you won't have as many credit cards that you'll have to cancel. Our recommendation: Carry one rewards card for everyday purchases as well as a backup card for unplanned purchases or emergencies.
And as we mentioned, photocopy the front and back of everything in your wallet, or write the cancellation phone numbers or websites for your credit cards on a piece of paper at home. The "lost or stolen" number is typically on the back of your credit card, but if your credit card is stolen, that won't do you any good.
Your birth certificate, stolen, won't get anyone very far. But if they have it in conjunction with other types of fraudulent IDs, security experts say, thieves could do some major damage to your finances.
Be especially vigilant on the rare occasions when you're required to carry all of your most sensitive documents at the same time. One example of that is at a mortgage closing, when you might need to bring your birth certificate, Social Security card and passport. Don't let them out of your sight, and take them straight home before you celebrate that closing. It's not a good idea to leave them in your car.
A stack of receipts
You don't need all those receipts jammed into your wallet. While businesses have not been allowed to print on paper receipts more than the last five digits of your credit card number for years, ID-theft experts say skilled thieves could use those last five digits and merchant information on receipts to phish for the remaining numbers on your credit card (quite often, your name is also on those receipts).
Remove those receipts from your wallet daily and shred them. If you need to retain receipts, for possible returns or warranties, ask the merchant to skip the paper and send you a digital receipt instead. Most retailers will. If you have a printed receipt you need to keep, consider making it digital and storing it securely in the cloud. Apps that do this include Shoeboxed, which lets you create and categorize digital copies of your receipts and business cards. Plans start at $29 per month.
Many retirees still may have old Medicare cards with their Social Security numbers printed on them in their wallets. Carry only your new Medicare card. Medicare has stopped issuing Medicare cards with Social Security numbers on them and replaced them with new, paper cards. The new Medicare cards have a number on it that's unique to you.
If you have an old Medicare card with your Social Security number on it, remove it from your wallet and replace it with the new card. Shred the Medicare card that has your Social Security number on it.
Many of us carry gift cards in our wallets just in case we happen to end up in the retailer or restaurant that the card is good for. That's not such a great idea.
Retailers don't ask for ID when using gift cards, after all, because your name isn't on them (even though the Home Depot gift card you got on Father's Day does say "To Dad" on the back). That means anyone who rifles through your lost wallet can redeem those gift cards same as cash -- no questions asked. The smarter way to use them is to leave them at home until you know for sure you are headed to that destination where you can use those gift cards.
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