Your Wallet: A Loser's Manual How to protect your money, your credit record — and your sanity — if you become a victim
Consider this: Your wallet is stolen. You immediately call your bank and credit card company to report the problem, close old accounts and open new ones. You even remember to call the Social Security Administration to notify them that you had your Social Security card in your wallet. At the end of the day, you feel fairly confident that the incident is behind you.
But weeks later you receive past-due notices on bills for merchandise you never purchased, and a few months later your application for an auto loan gets rejected because someone has used your name and Social Security number to open new accounts and run up thousands of dollars in debt. The good news: Your actual liability for these unauthorized purchases is limited by law or industry standards. The bad news: It’s likely that you’ll spend many frustrating hours trying to clear your name and straighten out your credit history.
Here are safety tips from FDIC Consumer News that can greatly reduce the chances of becoming a victim.
Limit the amount of confidential information in your wallet. Only carry the identification, checks, credit cards or debit/ATM cards you really need. The rest, including bank account numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs), passwords, and most importantly, Social Security cards, are best kept elsewhere in a safe place. Likewise, don’t pre-print your Social Security number or driver’s license number on your checks, because either one could help a thief apply for a loan, credit card or bank account in your name.
Keep good backup information about your bank and credit card accounts, just in case your wallet is lost or stolen. You'll want account numbers and phone numbers that can be used to report your losses or request new cards. "Some people make copies of the front and back of all the cards or important notes in their wallet to help jog their memory," said FDIC Regional Ombudsman Janet Kincaid.
Review your credit card bills and your checking account statements as soon as they arrive. Make sure that no fraudulent activity is taking place.
Periodically request your credit reports. Look for signs that someone may have obtained loans or tried to commit other fraud in your name. By federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call toll-free 1-877-322-8228 to order your free credit reports.
Experts often suggest that, to maximize your monitoring capability, you spread out your requests and receive a report from each of the three credit reporting agencies at separate times rather than all at once.
If you've already been victimized, take steps to limit your liability. Immediately call your bank (to report a lost debit/ATM card) and your credit card companies. And if you spot an unauthorized charge on your credit card, you must follow up on any phone calls to your card issuer with a letter disputing the transaction.
"Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you must dispute unauthorized charges appearing on your credit card statement in writing within 60 days after it was sent to you," noted Joni Creamean, Chief of the FDIC's Consumer Response Center. "The letter also must be sent to the bank's designated address for billing inquiries, not to where you’d mail your payments."
To learn more about avoiding identity theft, including steps you can take if your wallet has been lost or stolen, visit www.ftc.gov/idtheft.
Yes, our recommendations may be time consuming. But as the FDIC's Kincaid put it, "Being proactive is far preferable to the many hours you would spend trying to erase a criminal's fingerprints from your credit record."