It feels like a punch in the gut: You reach into your purse or pocket for your wallet, only to find that it’s mysteriously gone missing. The color drains from your face, and your heart starts to race — time to panic.
But if you know what to do next, you can channel that fear into action. It’s simply a matter of acting fast so that someone else doesn’t have a field day with your credit cards and other forms of personal and financial information. Here’s what to do next about each item you carry in your wallet.
1. CREDIT CARDS
Whether you love or loathe credit cards, there’s one thing you’ll be able to appreciate: the protections you have in place if one of yours goes missing. Under a federal law known as the Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability for any fraudulent credit card charge is limited to $50. If you report the card as lost or stolen to your credit card issuer before any charges are made, then you won’t be liable for any ensuing charges.
Reporting the cards as missing or lost should be a fairly quick process. Call the customer service number immediately. If you don’t know your account number, you may have to go through a few additional steps to verify your identity, but the credit card company should still be able to help you protect your account and send you a replacement card free of charge within a few days.
2. DEBIT/ATM CARD
As with a lost credit card, there are consumer protection laws that limit your liability if either your debit or ATM card is used by someone else to make fraudulent transactions. Unfortunately, because that money automatically leaves your account, there may be a waiting period between when the fraudulent charges are made and when you get those funds back.
Another difference: The amount of time you wait to report a debit or ATM card as missing determines how much you’ll ultimately be responsible for. If you report the card as lost or stolen before unauthorized charges occur, you aren’t responsible for any of it. If you report the card as missing within two business days, you could be held responsible for up to $50 in unauthorized use. If you wait more than two days but less than 60 calendar days after you receive the account statement the card is associated with, you could be responsible for up to $500. Beyond that, you could be responsible for all fraudulent use, so it’s important not to delay reporting your card as lost or stolen.
3. DRIVER'S LICENSE
Depending on the state in which your license was issued, you may not be required to officially report a driver’s license as lost or stolen — but you may have to sign a document stating that the original went missing when you visit your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to get a replacement identification card or license. And although a trip to the DMV is no one’s idea of a good time, it’s a good idea to get that replacement as soon as possible, as you may not be legally permitted to drive until you do.
4. SOCIAL SECURITY CARD
In the case of a Social Security number, you can't simply change it if it's lost or stolen, says Neal O’Farrell, executive director of The Identity Theft Council. “You have to assume you'll always be vulnerable to identity theft and act accordingly. Your best first step is to freeze your credit. It's the best way to protect against the most likely abuse of your Social Security number.” Unlike credit monitoring, a credit freeze will prevent any lender or creditor from viewing your credit report without your explicit permission. If a thief tries to open new accounts in your name, you’ll know about it before they’re able to make any progress.
Although you can technically apply to receive a new Social Security number, you must present proof that someone is actually using it and that it’s causing you serious harm. Henry Bagdasarian, founder of the Identity Management Institute, says that even if you were able to convince the SSA that your situation were dire enough to justify a new number (which is highly unlikely), changing it could actually mean more headache for you. That’s because it would lead to resetting your credit history, “which can mean delays or problems in getting loans,” Bagdasarian explains.
As for the card itself, you can request a replacement through the SSA’s website, but if you don’t meet all the criteria for an online application you may have to mail in your paperwork and provide proof of your identity with a document like a birth certificate. You could also pay a visit to your local SSA office to submit these in person.
5. HEALTH INSURANCE CARD
“If someone loses their medical insurance card, the person should notify the insurance company immediately,” Bagdasarian says, and the provider will likely replace it with a new card and account number, depending on what its policies and procedures are. It may take a few weeks to receive your new card, so it’s imperative to review your medical benefits statements for activity you don’t recognize and report any suspicious activity to your insurance company and health care providers.
If you do ever see activity that doesn’t match your own claims, act quickly, because “medical identity theft can be far more difficult to undo than other types of identity theft,” O’Farrell says. Get copies of your medical records from any doctors, clinics, hospitals, pharmacies or other health care providers so you can check them for errors. If you find any, ask your providers to correct or delete any fraudulent items via certified mail, and file a police or identity theft report through the FTC.
Chances are probably good that you don’t carry around paper checks with you. But, in the off chance you are still old school, it’s good to know that “losing a checkbook is more of an inconvenience than a risk because the problem can be solved quickly; you may not even have to close the account,” O’Farrell says. “Your bank could simply put a stop on all future checks and require your confirmation before they can be honored.”
That said, O’Farrell points out a scary reality: Thieves don't need your checkbook to commit check fraud. “All they need is your name, which they can get anywhere, to start creating their own checks. Those checks can then be used at any stores that don't verify checks before accepting them. In most cases, the victim will only know about the crime when they're contacted by law enforcement for passing bad checks,” he adds.
If you’re concerned that thieves will write fraudulent checks even after you’ve reported the issue to your bank, consider closing the account entirely and starting a new one. Just make sure to divert all future automated bill payments and direct deposits over to your new account.
And here’s one final overall tip: Considering paring down what you carry in your wallet to just the basics — your identification, insurance card, and the one credit card you use the most, for example. Not only will it be easier to lug your wallet around, you won’t be putting your whole financial life at risk if it’s lost or stolen again.