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AARP Bulletin

Scam Alert

10 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft

Follow these helpful tips to protect yourself — and your wallet

wallet brown lock chain protect scam alert cutout money credit cards (Mode Images / Alamy)

Securing your wallet is the quickest and most effective way to protect yourself from identity theft. — Mode Images/Alamy

Computer hackers may dominate the headlines, but you face a higher risk of identity theft from a stolen or lost wallet. Of all the cases of ID theft with a known cause, nearly half result from a missing wallet or purse — three times more than from data breaches or online scams aimed at getting your personal info, according to a study by the insurance company Travelers.

But you don't need to wait for your wallet to go missing before taking action. Here are two things to do now.

1. Remove especially risky items that shouldn't be in your wallet to begin with: your Social Security card; "cheat sheets" noting PINs or passwords for bank cards or online accounts; blank checks; and spare keys for your home or car. Rather than carry your Medicare card day-to-day, make a photocopy and cut out the last four digits of the number (but bring the original for doctor appointments).

2. Make photocopies of the front and back of every card you keep in your wallet — driver's license, credit and insurance cards, even your library card (yes, ID thieves have been known to run up fines with a stolen library card, which if unpaid can ding the real holder's credit score). Keep these copies safely at home as a record of all your account numbers, back-of-card security codes and contact information.

If your wallet does go missing, follow up with these steps:

3. Call your credit card issuers and request an "account number change." Don't say you want to cancel the account; that may be misunderstood as meaning you want to close it, which could inconvenience you and hurt your credit score.

4. File a report with your hometown police department and the one where you think your wallet went missing. Get a copy of the reports and send duplicates to your bank and credit-reporting bureaus.

5. Alert your bank to change PINs, cancel your missing ATM card and send you a new one. Get a new checking account number if your checkbook is missing.

6. Place a "fraud alert" or "security freeze" on your file at the three major credit bureaus: Experian at 888-397-3742 toll-free (experian.com), Equifax at 800-525-6285 (equifax.com) and Trans-Union at 800-680-7289 (transunion.com). Alerts are free for everyone; freezes are more secure and sometimes free for people 65 and older.

7. Contact your DMV about a replacement driver's license and ask that a stolen/lost warning be placed in your file.

Speak Out: Tell us about scams and fraud you've come across

8. Ask private medical insurers for a replacement account number to avoid insurance fraud. Call Medicare. Notify your auto insurer to be sure you'll avoid problems if the thief makes an accident claim from your policy. Ask if your homeowner's policy includes ID theft protection; some do.

9. Check your credit report about two weeks after the wallet's loss. To get a free report, visit annual creditreport.com or call 877-322-8228 toll-free. Two weeks is enough time for thieves to apply for credit in your name, but generally not enough for new cards to be issued. Recheck your credit report two to three months later.

10. And don't forget to replace that library card.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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