You and your hard-earned savings have finally made it to retirement. Why risk losing anything if your wallet goes missing or is stolen?
Because with every new bank slip that bulges from the seams, your personal information is getting less and less safe. With just your name and Social Security number, identity thieves can open new credit accounts and make costly purchases in your name. If they can get their hands on (and doctor) a government-issued photo ID of yours, they can do even more damage, including opening new bank accounts. These days, con artists are even profiting from tax-return fraud and health-care fraud, all with stolen IDs.
We talked with consumer-protection advocates to identify the nine things retirees should purge from their wallets immediately. And when you're finished, take a moment to photocopy everything you've left inside your wallet, front and back. Stash the copies in a secure location. The last thing you want to be wondering as you're reporting a stolen wallet is, "What exactly did I have in there?"
Social security card
Whether you've already started collecting Social Security or soon will, it's good to know where your Social Security card is located. Just don't locate it in your wallet.
Your nine-digit Social Security number is all a savvy ID thief needs to open new credit card accounts or take out loans in your name. ID-theft experts say your Social Security card is the absolute worst item to carry around.
Once you've removed your card, look for anything else that may contain your SSN — or your spouse's or children's Social Security numbers (some of us stow those away, too). Since December 2005, states can no longer display your Social Security number on newly issued driver's licenses, state ID cards and motor-vehicle registrations. Some of us old-timers may still have an older photo ID, plus some states issue motor-vehicle licenses for 10-year periods. What to do? Request a new card prior to the expiration date. There might be an additional fee, but it's worth it to protect your identity.
Password cheat sheet
The average American uses at least seven different passwords, and the more free time you have in retirement may find you web-surfing even more. Ideally, each of those passwords should be a unique combination of letters, numbers and symbols, and you should change them regularly. Is it any wonder we need help keeping track of them all?
However, carrying your ATM card's PIN number and a collection of passwords (especially those for online access to banking and investment accounts) on a scrap of paper in your wallet is a prescription for financial disaster.
If you have to keep passwords jotted down somewhere, keep them in a locked box in your house. Or consider a password management service, such as LastPass that will store all of your passwords behind one master login — the only password you'll need to remember. Family plans start at $4 per month. A password manager can also help you create strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts. Passwords generated by the service will still be long, unpredictable and impossible to remember. But that's okay because you'll never need to type them in yourself.
To add another layer of security, enable two-factor or multistep 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. The extra step deters hackers, and you'll know if an intruder attempts to log in with your password.
It's old-school, we know: keeping a spare key in your wallet (or under a doormat). But a lost wallet containing your home address and a spare key is an invitation for burglars to do far more harm than just opening a credit card in your name. Don't put your property and family at risk. And even if your home isn't robbed after losing a spare key, you'll likely spend $100 or more in locksmith fees to change the locks for peace of mind.
And, speaking of keys, be careful what you hand to the valet while out and about enjoying your retirement, warns Adam Levin, chairman and cofounder of Identity Theft 911. "Remember that every time you stop and hand your key to a valet, depending on what's in the glove box [or trunk], you are making yourself vulnerable." For example, your vehicle registration and insurance cards contain your address, and potential thieves know you're not home.
Instead, keep your spare keys with a trusted 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 minor inconvenience compared to the alternatives.
If you're still occasionally writing paper checks, like some of us, that's not going to end in retirement. However, know this: Blank checks in your wallet are an obvious risk — an easy way for thieves to quickly withdraw money from your checking account. But even a lost check you've already filled out can lead to financial loss, perhaps long after you've canceled and forgotten about it. With the routing number and account number on your check, anybody could attempt to transfer funds from your account electronically.
Only carry paper checks when you will absolutely need them. And leave the checkbook at home, bringing only the exact number of checks you anticipate needing that day.
If you're planning a lot of international travel in retirement, note this: A government-issued passport, including a wallet-size passport card, opens up a world of possibilities for a con artist. "Thieves would love to get (hold of) this," says Nikki Junker, a victim adviser at the Identity Theft Resource Center. A stolen passport or passport card can be used by an identity thief to travel under your name, open unauthorized bank accounts or even get a new copy of your Social Security card.
Instead, keep only your driver's license or other personal ID in your wallet while traveling inside the United States. When you're overseas, carry a photocopy your passport and leave the original in a hotel lockbox.
Multiple credit cards
Although you shouldn't ditch credit cards altogether (those who regularly carry a card tend to have higher credit scores than those who don't), consider a lighter load. After all, the more cards you carry, the more you'll have to cancel if your wallet is lost or stolen. We recommend carrying a single card for unplanned purchases or emergencies, plus perhaps an additional rewards card on days when you expect to buy eligible gas or groceries.
Maintain a list, someplace other than your wallet, with all the contact numbers for your credit cards. The phone numbers are typically listed on the backs of cards, but that won't do you much good when your wallet is nowhere to be found. Call immediately if your cards go missing.
The birth certificate itself won't get ID thieves very far. However, "birth certificates could be used in correlation with other types of fraudulent IDs," says Junker of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "Once you have those components, you can do the same things you could with a passport or a Social Security card."
Be especially cautious on occasions — such as your mortgage closing — when you might need to present your birth certificate, Social Security card and other important personal documents at once. "Everything's together," Junker notes, "and someone can just come along and steal them all. Take the time to take them home, and don't leave them in your car."
Since 2003, businesses have not been allowed to print anything containing your credit or debit card's expiration date or more than the last five digits of your credit card number. Still, a crafty ID thief can use the limited credit card info and merchant information on receipts to phish for your remaining numbers.
Clear receipts out of your wallet nightly, shredding the ones you don't need. But for receipts you save, keep them safe by going digital. An app such as Shoeboxed lets you create and categorize digital copies of your receipts and business cards. Plans start at $15 per month.
Retirees, double check your Medicare card, too. If it was issued before April 2015, it has your Social Security number on it. A law signed in April 2015 requires the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to remove SSNs from Medicare cards, but the change is being implemented gradually by geographic region. It will take until April 2019 before SSNs are removed from all cards.
Photocopy your Medicare card (front and back) and carry the copy with you instead of your real card. Keep your real Medicare card in a safe place at home. Experts are torn when it comes to blacking out your Social Security number on the photocopy — some think it's sufficient to black out the first five digits, while others think it's best to mask the entire number — so err on the side of caution and black out all nine digits. If a medical appointment requires your full SSN, you can provide it upon request from memory or in advance by phone.