Lost Wallet in the Era of Identity Theft

My wife Susan has long maintained that every bad financial circumstance will eventually happen to me, just so I can write about it. Last week, the bad stuff happened to her.

Her wallet was lost or stolen — she doesn't know which — an event that not only changed the way she has been living for the last few days, but which will have an impact on how she acts as a consumer for a year or more.

In the old days, a lost wallet was mostly mourned for the cash that went with it, along with maybe some pictures. Credit cards were a problem, but most card issuers assume full responsibility when a missing card is reported promptly.

• Click here to visit FOXBusiness.com's Identity Theft Center.

But in the era of identity theft, a lost wallet is a real pain. While simple robbery and credit-card fraud is still the prime motive — the one that results in those missing credit cards frequently being used within 24 hours of being taken — experts believe that savvy identity thieves now wait for six months to a year before using information gleaned from a stolen wallet. The time lag lulls the victim into a false sense of everything-will-be-all-right, at which point the critical personal information available in a wallet can be used to a thief's advantage.

Susan, the most patient and understanding woman in America, found that the experience of losing a wallet was a big test right from the start. Aside from the initial panic that it might be gone, the retracing of steps and more, Susan had to reconstruct what she was missing. That meant figuring out which credit cards she was carrying, but her inventory also included several merchandise credits she had been carrying in her wallet; those were as valuable as cash, and almost as difficult to replace.

Moreover, Susan had some items that she wanted to return, which would have given her credit on at least one of the missing cards. Not being able to use that card, she feared, would mean weeks before she could return the merchandise, which could have meant not being able to get cash back but having to settle for another store credit. That created a bit of a problem.

Act Quickly

Debit cards need to be reported as lost or stolen immediately, because consumers can potentially be on the hook for losses amounting to all monies they have in their accounts, plus overdraft charges. Quick reporting will reduce that liability to $50.

Lost credit cards should be reported early, because it's the best way to stop problems. In Susan's case, she wanted to make those returns first. Depending on the card issuer, however, there was no reason to wait; most issuers would have frozen the cards, but not the account, allowing for the processing of a return. After all, the card issuers are worried about theft, not about people putting money back into the account. (Many card companies allow consumers to set up an alert that triggers if there's a third-party request for additional cards, for new accounts, for an address change and more).

"Most card issuers have safeguards that they can put in place," says Paul Richard, executive director of the Institute for Consumer Financial Education in San Diego. "No matter the reason, don't wait to report the cards missing. Instead, report the cards missing and talk to the issuer about what they can do so that you're able to go on about your business as normally as possible."

Susan's wallet-replacement odyssey was made tougher by the fact that she hasn't copied the contents, laying them out on a copy machine and duplicating the various cards and forms of identification. This copy has all of the contact numbers — if they're not on the back of the cards, you can add them before filing the copy in a drawer — and account numbers in one place.

Her experience served as a reminder for me to update my copy, as two card issuers have changed my account number this year, making my wallet-contents copy out of date. (Copies of store merchandise credits — and any gift certificates or cards — might have made it possible for those to be re-issued too.)

Her temptation was to focus on the debit and credit cards, plus her missing license, but the most critical piece of information might have been the missing health-insurance card. Insurers have a tremendous amount of information that can create all kinds of trouble if it gets into the wrong hands.

Identity theft involves using one person's name to get access to new credit accounts (or to use that identity for other purposes, such as having access to a clean driving record and more). The thief may use the information to forward mail, or to create a post-office box address, and may then open credit accounts where the bills are sent to the new mailbox. Victims never see that the thief is damaging their credit records until it is too late.

Some health insurers and credit card issuers will allow a consumer to add some level of security code before they will give out account information or change a consumer's billing address and more. Once a wallet has been stolen, those are precautions a consumer should ask for.

Alerts and Monitoring

Once the card issuers have all been notified, it's time to contact the credit bureaus to put a fraud alert in place. Experts are split on whether a lost wallet makes for a good time to pay for a credit-monitoring service; some say the service adds to peace of mind, others note that many staples of identity theft — like opening the post-office box or utilities account — fly under the radar of monitoring.

Eighteen states allow consumers to freeze their credit files with the credit bureaus, stopping a third party from accessing the information without a request to thaw the account. To work, this tends to be necessary at each of the three major credit bureaus; over several years, a number of consumers have told me they had a hard time lifting the freeze when necessary.

And while it doesn't take consumers too long to rebuild their financial life once that wallet is gone, they need to monitor their credit for at least a year afterwards, just to be safe.

"You want to get over losing your wallet as quickly as possible and get everything back to normal," says Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook," but it won't be back to normal until you are certain that nothing has been used against you. It will take a year or more for you to really be sure of that."

• Click here to visit FOXBusiness.com's Identity Theft Center.

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