You reach for your wallet to settle up a bill and find … nothing. Panic sets in as you frantically pat down your pockets or fumble around the contents of your purse. It’s gone. Losing whatever cash you may have on hand is bad enough, but the other contents in your wallet can be a treasure trove for criminals, who can go on to perpetrate credit card fraud and identity theft.
The silver lining: Act fast and you can minimize much of the potential damage. Here’s where to start.
1. Cancel your debit and credit cards
Credit or debit accounts should be closed as soon as possible. Call the bank or credit card companies that issued the cards that were in your wallet and cancel them. Request replacements with new account numbers.
Deal with your debit card first. “The debit card is the gateway into your bank account,” says Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout, author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves, and cohost of the weekly podcast What the Hack With Adam Levin. “If someone steals your credit card and uses it, they’re spending the credit card company’s money,” he notes.
Adding to the urgency: With a credit card, you have 60 days to report your loss, and the most you will owe for unauthorized charges on the card is $50. The terms are less friendly when it comes to debit cards. By federal law, you have two business days to refute unauthorized charges on a debit card. If you report within two business days of learning about the theft, the most you may be liable for is $50. If you report it after more than two business days, your maximum loss is $500. Report it after 60 calendar days, and you could be liable for the entire amount stolen.
The faster you can cancel that card, if it goes missing, the better. Then cancel your credit cards.
2. Freeze your credit
With your driver’s license in hand, a thief has enough information to do some serious damage. Putting a freeze in place blocks lenders and creditors from accessing your credit report, so someone else won’t be able to take out credit in your name.
“If lenders can’t see your scores, they don’t know what their risk quotient is, so they’re not going to issue that new card or approve that loan,” says cybersecurity expert and private investigator Robert Siciliano.
Contact each of the three national credit reporting bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — and ask them not to share your credit report or information with anyone. There is no cost for this. (Read our story for more on how to, and why you’d want to, freeze your credit).
Or ask the credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit. A fraud alert notifies creditors, lenders or anyone viewing your credit report that someone may be trying to apply for credit fraudulently in your name. Read the free credit report that each bureau will send you after your request to check for unfamiliar activity or suspicious new lines of credit.