By Barbara Stepko, AARP June 2023
What do I do if my wallet is lost or stolen? Here's 7 steps to prevent identity theft and money loss -- plus how to replace what's missing....
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.
3. File a police report
Call your local precinct to get a police report on record. Even though the police may not be able to recover your missing wallet, it’s a crucial piece of documentation to have on hand.
With a police report, you have evidence of theft in case someone tries to use your info for fraud. “This is for your own protection,” says Chelsea Binns, former president of the New York Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Also, she says, if someone finds your wallet, a filed police report will have your contact info so the items can be returned to you quickly.
4. Set up fraud alerts
Depending on what services your bank or credit card offers, you can sign up for account activity alerts through email, text message or the company’s app. This will allow you to catch suspicious transactions immediately.
5. Update your auto-pay accounts
As soon as you receive replacement cards, make sure to update the billing information for anything handled through auto-pay to avoid late fees.
6. Keep an eye on all of your accounts
Thieves can’t keep using a card once you’ve shut down the account, but that doesn’t mean you should stop checking your monthly paper statements and monitoring your online bank and credit card accounts for suspicious withdrawals or charges you don’t recognize. Be alert to tiny withdrawals: Sometimes thieves will process a small debit or charge against your account to see if it will go through, then return to withdraw higher amounts.
Fraudulent charges to your card or debits to your bank account might occur many months after the theft of your information. “They can do it in a subtle way, because many people don’t necessarily check their bank accounts on a daily basis,” Levin says. “By the time that you find out that there’s something amiss, there could be a great deal gone.”
7. Replace what’s been lost:
Social Security card
Your Social Security card is gold for identity thieves, so it always should be kept safe at home. But if it’s been spirited away with your wallet, reach out to the Social Security Administration (SSA), pronto, and report its loss. Before requesting a replacement card, consider whether you actually need one. What really matters is knowing your number — you’ll rarely need the card itself. A replacement should be obtained if you’re starting a new job or live in Pennsylvania, where you’ll need it to apply for a Real ID.
If you must replace your card, you can request a replacement Social Security card online or by calling 800-772-1213. Once you’re clear on which documents you’ll need (for example, proof of identity, such as a driver’s license, passport or state-issued ID card), print and fill out the application form, then take it and your original documents to your local Social Security office (the website will help you find the address).
When someone has your license, they can perpetrate all kinds of fraud, including opening credit cards, taking out loans, changing your address and receiving your mail (including new credit cards), and filing for unemployment benefits in your name.
You also need a license to drive legally, so you’ll want to replace it immediately.
Check your state’s official DMV website to find out how to do so — the process varies by state. Some states let you apply for a replacement online. You'll typically pay a small fee (anywhere from $5 to $34).
In the wrong hands, your Medicare number may be used for scams, such as filing for false claims and reimbursement. “A type of growing fraud involves Medicare fraud,” Binns says. “Someone can use your health insurance, and you may not know at the time. But after the fact, you may go to have a procedure and you’re told you’ve already hit your deductible.”
To replace your Medicare card, you have two options. The quickest and most convenient: Log in to your online Medicare account, then click Print my Medicare card on the main page. You can use this until your sturdier paper version comes in the mail. Or call 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227) to order a replacement.
You can also replace your Medicare card through Social Security, which is convenient if both cards are missing. Log in online and navigate to the Medicare Enrollment Detail section. Click on Replace your Medicare card, then Mail My Replacement Medicare Card.
Your new card will be mailed to you at your address on file with the Social Security Administration in about 30 days. Make a note of your Medicare number because you don’t always need the card to be eligible for benefits. If you forget your card or don’t have it with you, a provider may be able to look up your information online in the government’s secure system.
If you’ve lost a health insurance card from a private plan, file a request for a new card online or by phone. Representatives should be able to guide you through the process of obtaining a new one. Check your explanation of benefits summaries regularly for fraudulent usage.
Do a wallet edit — pull everything out of your wallet or purse and put back in only the things you use frequently. (Read our story “10 Worst Things to Carry in Your Wallet.”)
Keep a list of every item you end up keeping in your wallet, along with contact information, in a safe place. Consider scanning or taking smartphone photos of cards and documents (fronts and backs) and saving them to your computer.
Give yourself easy access to the customer service numbers for your bank or credit card company. You might keep them in your phone’s contacts, so you can reach out quickly in case of a theft.