Someone stole my stinking wallet while I was pushing a cart at the supermarket. And, to add insult to injury, the wallet was snatched during National Protect Your Identity Week (October 17 to 24).
I learned a few valuable lessons from the experience, which I would like to share. Here’s what I did wrong, what I did right and how I will be more prepared if it ever happens again (not that it will).
Lesson 1: Stay alert -- even in the frozen-food aisle. When I got to the grocery store, I set my purse down in my shopping cart and began walking up and down, turning my back every so often to grab a bottle of this and a package of that. I shouldn’t have been so trusting. When I got to the register, I realized that my wallet had been plucked from my purse and I couldn’t pay for my groceries. I offered to put them all back (and felt grateful that the thief had not taken my purse, with my keys, phone, and datebook).
Lesson 2: Crooks can work fast. So keep the number to report lost or stolen cards handy. Everyone knows that the first thing to do is cancel your credit and debit cards. (Actually, the first thing I did was call my Mom. But right after that I called the bank.)
The crooks were quick: By the time I had retraced my steps in the grocery, driven home and looked up the “800” numbers to call to report missing cards and freeze my accounts, they had already used my cards. The first place they ran was to an office-supply store less than a block away from the grocery. They bought just less than $10 worth of stuff. Why pens and pencils? Why not big-ticket items? Police say criminals often test cards they steal by making small purchases first. They continued to try their luck at department stores and fast-food restaurants, but by that time I had frozen my accounts.
On the semi-frantic drive from the grocery to my apartment I wondered why I had never programmed the toll-free number to report a lost or stolen card into my cell. It’s more important than the pizza-delivery number I have in there.
Lesson 3: Report the problem ASAP to police and the credit agencies. I was in the process of filing a police report when my bank called to tell me where my cards had been used. The one charge that made it through before I froze the accounts would be taken off as soon as I signed and returned an affidavit that the bank would send me.
I relayed the bank’s information to the police to help them find the culprit. In turn, I can use the police report if I need to place an extended fraud alert, which lasts for seven years, on my credit report later on.
The day my wallet was stolen I filed an initial fraud alert online to be put on my credit report. The alert lasts for 90 days and entitles me to one free copy of my credit report from each of the three agencies (see below). An alert tells potential creditors that you have reason to believe that you are at risk for identity theft and to be cautious about granting credit in your name. I thought it necessary because the person with my wallet now had my driver’s license, credit cards, several forms of photo ID and a good look at my signature (see Fraud Alert Versus Credit Freeze).
Lesson 4: Keep photocopies of your wallet’s important contents. I should’ve made copies. Now, as I replace the contents of my wallet, I am keeping photocopies of important cards: my driver’s license, insurance cards, mass-transit pass, etc. Had I done this before “the incident,” getting replacements would have gone more smoothly. It would not have been so hard to remember what in my wallet needed replacing. And I would have been able to provide current account info when asking for replacement cards.
Though I will never see my wallet or my Robek’s juice card again (I was just three hole punches away from a free smoothie!), I did learn some things.
Bonus Tip: How to place a fraud alert
To place an initial 90-day alert on your credit, contact one of the three credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). By contacting one of the three agencies, your request will be passed on to the other two, which will then send you confirmation. It is free to set up an alert, which removes you from prescreened credit-solicitation lists and forces lenders to take extra steps before approving credit in your name. It also affords you one free copy of your credit report from each agency.
After the 90 days are up, if you are still concerned, you may place an extended fraud alert on your file -- also free of charge. To request an extended alert, you will have to provide a police report or official record showing you’ve been a victim of identity theft. Here’s how to contact the agencies: