You're doing your holiday shopping in the midst of those distracting sales and crowds. You're checking your gift lists (twice!) and your budget. You're juggling bags and boxes. And you're paying little attention to your purse or wallet. These are the moments when identity thieves will strike.
"Pickpocketing can happen virtually anywhere, and people should be on their guard, especially while shopping this holiday season," says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president of Experian's ProtectMyID. "Thieves take advantage of the shopping rush and its inherent distractions to steal wallets and, potentially, identities."
With just your name and Social Security number, identity thieves can open new credit accounts and make costly purchases in your name. If they can get their hands on (and doctor) a government-issued photo ID, they can do even more damage, such as opening new bank accounts.
We talked with consumer-protection advocates to identify the eight things you should purge from your wallet immediately to limit your risk in case your wallet is lost or stolen.
And when you're finished removing your wallet's biggest information leaks, take a moment to photocopy everything you've left inside, front and back. The last thing you want to be wondering as you're reporting a stolen wallet is, "What exactly did I have in there?"
1. Your Social Security Card...
...and anything with the number on it.
Your nine-digit Social Security number is all a savvy ID thief needs to open new credit card accounts or loans in your name. ID-theft experts say your Social Security card is the absolute worst item to carry around.
Once you've removed your card, look for anything else that may contain your SSN. As of December 2005, states can no longer display your SSN on newly issued driver's licenses, state ID cards and motor-vehicle registrations. If you still have an older photo ID, request a new card prior to the expiration date. There might be an additional fee, but it's worth it to protect your identity.
Retirees, pull out your Medicare card, too, because it has your SSN on it.
Instead: Photocopy your Medicare card (front and back) and carry it with you instead of your real card. Experts are torn when it comes to blacking out a portion of your Social Security number on the copy, so to be safe, black out all nine digits. If an appointment requires the full SSN, you can then provide it as needed.
2. Password Cheat Sheet
The average American uses at least seven different passwords (and probably should use even more to avoid repeating them on multiple sites/accounts). Ideally, each of those passwords should be a unique combination of letters, numbers, and symbols, and you should change them regularly. Is it any wonder we need help keeping track of them all?
However, carrying your ATM card's PIN number and a collection of passwords (especially those for online access to banking and investment accounts) on a scrap of paper in your wallet is a prescription for financial disaster.
Instead: If you have to keep passwords jotted down somewhere, keep them in a locked box in your house. Or consider an encrypted mobile app, such as SplashID ($9.95; Android, Blackberry, iPad, iPhone), Password Safe Pro (free, Android only) or Pocket (free, Android only).
3. Spare Keys
A lost wallet containing your home address (likely found on your driver's license or other items) and a spare key is an invitation for burglars to do far more harm than just opening a credit card in your name. Don't put your property and family at risk. (And even if your home isn't robbed after losing a spare key, you'll likely spend $100+ in locksmith fees to change the locks for peace of mind.)
And, speaking of keys, be careful what you hand to the valet, warns Adam Levin, chairman and cofounder of Identity Theft 911. "Remember that every time you stop and hand your key to a valet, depending on what's in the glove box [or trunk], you are making yourself vulnerable."
Instead: Keep your spare keys with a trusted relative or friend. If you're ever locked out, it may take a little bit longer to retrieve your backup key, but that's a relatively minor inconvenience.
Blank checks are an obvious risk--an easy way for thieves to quickly withdraw money from your checking account. But even a lost check you've already filled out can lead to financial loss--perhaps long after you've canceled and forgotten about it. With the routing and account numbers on your check, anybody could electronically transfer funds from your account.
Instead: Only carry paper checks when you will absolutely need them. And leave the checkbook at home, bringing only the exact amount of checks you anticipate needing that day.
A government-issued photo ID such as a passport opens up a world of possibilities for an ID thief. "Thieves would love to get (ahold of) this," says Nikki Junker, a victim adviser at the Identity Theft Resource Center. "You could use it for anything"--including traveling in your name, opening bank accounts or even getting a new copy of your Social Security card.
Instead: Carry only your driver's license or other personal ID while traveling inside the United States. When you're overseas, photocopy your passport and leave the original in a hotel lockbox.
6. Multiple Credit Cards
Although you shouldn't ditch credit cards altogether (those who regularly carry a card tend to have higher credit scores than those who don't), consider a lighter load. After all, the more cards you carry, the more you'll have to cancel if your wallet is lost or stolen. We recommend carrying a single card for unplanned or emergency purchases, plus perhaps an additional rewards card on days when you expect to buy gas or groceries.
Also: Maintain a list, someplace other than your wallet, with all the cancellation numbers for your credit cards. They are typically listed on the back of your cards, but that won't do you much good when your wallet is nowhere to be found.
7. Birth Certificate
The birth certificate itself won't get ID thieves very far. However, "birth certificates could be used in correlation with other types of fraudulent IDs," Junker says. "Once you have those components, you can do the same things you could with a passport or a Social Security card."
Be especially cautious on occasions--such as your mortgage closing--when you may need to present your birth certificate, Social Security card and other important personal documents at once. "Everything's together," Junker notes, "and someone can just come along and steal them all. Take the time to take them home, and don't leave them in your car."
8. A Stack of Receipts
Beginning in December 2003, businesses may not print anything containing your credit or debit card's expiration date or more than the last five digits of your credit card number. Still, a crafty ID thief can use the limited credit card info and merchant information on receipts to phish for your remaining numbers.
Instead: Clear those receipts out each night -- you probably have plenty from your holiday shopping -- shredding the ones you don't need. But for receipts you save, keep them safe by going digital. Apps such as Lemon and Shoeboxed create and categorize digital copies of your receipts and business cards. For even more ideas, check out 7 Steps to Convert Paper Files to Digital.
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