I knew I should have carried my wallet in a purse that night. Instead, I fashionably tucked it under my arm and headed to the local wine bar with my husband. Two pinot noirs later I reached over to pay the bill only to realize that my wallet — which I thought I’d rested on the bar top — had vanished. Was it stolen? Did it fall on the ground somewhere? Hold on. Did I even bring my wallet? (The wine wasn’t helping.)
We carefully traced our steps back to our apartment, eyes glued to the ground. But no luck. The wallet was gone and so was our fun date night. When this happens, the key is to remain calm and proceed through a quick and efficient plan of action. Follow these seven steps to ensure your money and identity stay safe.
Step 1: Call Your Debit Card Issuers
If you had an ATM/debit card or checkbook in your wallet, your very first phone call should be to that bank or card issuer, says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com. If there have been any unauthorized withdrawals in the brief period since losing your wallet, you’ll be happy you acted fast.
That’s because victims of debit card fraud need only pay up to a maximum of $50 as long as they report a missing or lost card within the first two business days of realizing the card’s gone. And most likely your bank won’t hold you liable for a single penny if you notify them promptly, says Detweiler. They’ll replace all your missing funds while investigating the fraud.
If you fail to report the lost or stolen card until after two days (and before 60 days), your liability limit jumps to a maximum of $500 in the event of fraudulent activity. After 60 days, if you’ve yet to make a claim, you risk losing any and all money stolen from your account. According to the Federal Trade Commission, if you report the loss of a debit card before someone illegally uses it, you’re not responsible for those unauthorized transactions.
So, first things first, head to your bank’s website and locate the 800-telephone number for reporting lost or stolen debit cards or checkbooks. Once you call and make the claim, your bank will probably try to verify the last few charges on the card with you. Then, they’ll issue you a new card with different digits (your lost card will no longer work) and, if they spot unauthorized transactions, refill your account and launch an investigation.
Some Common Bank Numbers:
- Bank of America: 1-800-432-1000
- Chase: 1-800-935-9935
- TD Bank: 1-888-751-9000
- Citibank: 1-800-950-5114
- Wells Fargo: 1-800-869-3557
Step 2: Call Your Credit Card Issuers
Next, call your credit card issuer and let them know your wallet’s missing. Just like with your missing debit card, the issuer will replace the missing credit card with a new one with new digits. Delaying this step could cost you – but not as much as with a debit card, which is why it’s not the very first step.
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you face no liability if someone steals your credit card and starts going on a shopping spree as long as you report the lost or stolen card prior to the theft. If someone starts charging up your account prior to you alerting your card issuer, your limited liability goes from zero to up to $50.
Some Common Credit Card Numbers:
- American Express: 1-800-992-3404
- Discover: 1-800-347-2683
- MasterCard: 1-800-627-8372
- Visa: 1-800-847-2911
Step 3: File a Local Police Report
If you’re sure your wallet’s been stolen, you ought to let the police know. It’s a critical step towards protecting your identity. “File a police report and list all of the items that were stolen,” says Adam Levin, Chairman and Founder of Identity Theft 911. And don’t leave the station until you receive a copy or two of the report. “This will be useful if the theft results in any sort of fraud. In the case that you are a victim of identity theft, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and fill out an identity theft affidavit form and attach it with your copy of the police report,” Levin says.
Note: In several states, you must file a police report if you lose your license or if it gets stolen. Check the rules with your state’s DMV.
Step 4: Set Up Fraud Alerts
While your old debit and credit cards will no longer work after your bank issues you new ones, a thief could still find a way to steal your identity and begin opening lines of credit with your name, date of birth and address (found on your license). In an effort to protect your identity and credit, set up a fraud alert with one of the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Once you place an alert with one, the law requires that agency to report your loss to the other two and a fraud alert will be placed on all three of your credit reports for an initial 90 days for free. By placing an alert, lenders and creditors will know to verify a person’s identity before extending him or her any new credit.
Credit Agency Phone Numbers:
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
Step 5: Pull Your Credit Reports
Just as creditors are now keeping a watchful eye on your accounts for the next three months, you should, too. Head to annualcreditreport.com and download your credit reports from each of the three credit reporting agencies. It’s free to do so once a year.
Check for any strange activity like unfamiliar inquiries or accounts. Better to do this two or three times during the year – after the free 90-day fraud alert expires – since some thieves will sit on your information for a while, hoping that you’ll let your guard down, and then start opening new lines of credit in your name, says Detweiler. “Monitoring your credit should be an ongoing process,” she says.
Step 6: Call Your Health Insurance Company
Your medical identity could be at risk if your health insurance card gets in the wrong hands. Someone could start using your card to receive medical benefits. If that card’s gone missing along with the other items in your wallet, call your health care provider and let them know. They may change your policy number and reissue you a card with that new number.
Keep in mind that it may take a little while for the new card to arrive – possibly a week or longer – which may disrupt your ability to use your insurance to pay for prescriptions or doctor co-pays right away. Keep receipts so that you can get reimbursed if you experience any gaps in coverage due to the card reissuance.
Step 7: Social Security Card Gone, Too? Consider a Credit Freeze
Your social security number is the jackpot for an identity thief. With it, he or she can easily open credit accounts in your name. Hopefully this wasn’t in your wallet, but if it was, you may want to look into applying for a credit freeze. This prevents anyone from applying for credit under your name and social security number. It’s the ultimate precaution.
Credit freezes are not free, however, if you’re not a victim of identity theft. Depending on the state you live in, the cost to implement a credit freeze can range anywhere from $2 to $10 per credit reporting agency.
As for replacing your social security card, it’s free to do so up to three times per year. You can begin the process online, but will eventually need to go in-person to a local social security office to receive your new card.
So, Whatever Became of My Wallet?
Believe it or not, that same evening, after following nearly all of the aforementioned steps, I received a Facebook message from someone claiming they’d found my wallet on the sidewalk. Indeed, a nice lady had spotted my wallet on the ground while walking home from work. Apparently it had fallen out from under my arm prior to arriving at the bar. She left me her number and we connected in person the very next day. As a thank you, I gave her a $100 gift card to the organic market in the neighborhood.
Moral of the story: Always appreciate and learn from the honest and good acts of perfect strangers. (And if you lose your wallet, check for random messages on Facebook!)
Farnoosh Torabi is an award-winning financial journalist and bestselling author. Join her popular online community and immediately receive a free gift: Farnoosh’s 10 keys to living a richer, happier life.