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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By the editors of Kiplinger's Personal Finance
| December 31, 2016
That overstuffed wallet of yours can’t be comfortable to sit on. It’s probably even too clunky to lug around in a purse, too.
And 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, such as 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 eight things you should purge from your wallet immediately to limit your risk in case your wallet is lost or stolen.
And when you’re finished removing your wallet’s biggest information leaks, take a moment to photocopy everything you’ve left inside, front and back. Stash the copies in a secure location at home or in a safe-deposit box. The last thing you want to be wondering as you're reporting a stolen wallet is, “What exactly did I have in there?”
...and anything with the number on it.
Your nine-digit Social Security number is all a savvy ID thief needs to open new credit card accounts or 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. As of December 2005, states can no longer display your SSN on newly issued driver's licenses, state ID cards and motor-vehicle registrations. If you still have an older photo ID, request a new card prior to the expiration date. There might be an additional fee, but it's worth it to protect your identity.
Retirees, double check your Medicare card, too: If it was issued before April, 2015, it has your SSN on it. President Obama signed a law in April 2015 requiring the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to remove SSNs from Medicare cards, but the change is being implemented gradually: CMS will start sending the new cards in April 2018, but it will take until April 2019 before SSNs are removed from all cards.
Instead: Photocopy your Medicare card (front and back) and carry it with you instead of your real card. Experts are torn when it comes to blacking out a portion of your Social Security number on the copy, so to be safe, black out all nine digits. If an appointment requires the full SSN, you can then provide it as needed.
The average American uses at least seven different passwords (and probably should use even more to avoid repeating them on multiple sites/accounts). 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.
Instead: If you have to keep passwords jotted down somewhere, keep them in a locked box in your house. Or consider an encrypted mobile app, such as SplashID (free or $1.99 monthly for Pro), Password Safe Pro ($19.95, Android only) or Pocket (free, Android only).
A lost wallet containing your home address (likely found on your driver's license or other items) 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+ in locksmith fees to change the locks for peace of mind.)
And, speaking of keys, be careful what you hand to the valet, 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."
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 relatively minor inconvenience.
Blank checks 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 and account numbers on your check, anybody could electronically transfer funds from your account.
Instead: Only carry paper checks when you will absolutely need them. And leave the checkbook at home, bringing only the exact amount of checks you anticipate needing that day.
A government-issued photo ID such as a passport opens up a world of possibilities for an ID thief. “Thieves would love to get (ahold of) this,” says Nikki Junker, a victim adviser at the Identity Theft Resource Center. “You could use it for anything”—including traveling in your name, opening bank accounts or even getting a new copy of your Social Security card.
Instead: Carry only your driver’s license or other personal ID while traveling inside the United States. When you're overseas, photocopy your passport and leave the original in a hotel lockbox.
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 or emergency purchases, plus perhaps an additional rewards card on days when you expect to buy gas or groceries.
Also: Maintain a list, someplace other than your wallet, with all the cancellation numbers for your credit cards. They are typically listed on the back of your cards, but that won’t do you much good when your wallet is nowhere to be found.
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,” Junker says. “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 may 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.”
Beginning in December 2003, businesses may not 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.
Instead: Clear those receipts out each night, shredding the ones you don’t need. But for receipts you save, keep them safe by going digital. An app like Shoeboxed lets you create and categorize digital copies of your receipts and business cards. Plans start at $9.95 per month. For even more ideas, check out 7 Steps to Convert Paper Files to Digital.
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