This is a guest entry from Israel Lopez.

This weekend I visited a friend at San Francisco State University. On Saturday, my friend and I had lunch downtown. At about 2pm, we parked my car about 1-1/2 blocks from the restaurant. We had some good sushi. We were gone from the car for maybe an hour. When we returned, my car had been broken into, and my valuables stolen.

The thieves took my laptop bag and my camera bag. The laptop bag contained:

  • my backup debit card (in case I lost my wallet),
  • my passport,
  • my laptop, and
  • my mp3 player.

The camera bag contained:

  • my Canon AE-1 (old-school camera),
  • camera filters,
  • film,
  • batteries, etc.

Overall, the damage was about $1,700.

My weekend ruined, I contacted dispatch for San Francisco police department. They told me to go to the police office about six blocks away. When I got there, they told me to file my report online. I filed the report once I get the serial number and service tag for my Dell Laptop, then I went home.

At the end of the twelve-hour drive, my tire went flat from a nail. I almost careened off the road into a couple of cars. Thank goodness for quick maneuvering! I arrived home at 5am Sunday, and went to sleep thinking I was safe.

I awoke at ten the next morning and went to my local bank. I withdrew some cash to pay a local junk yard to replace the glass broken. (My car auto glass is hard to find as-is.) Then I noticed something seriously wrong!

My trip should have cost only about $200. But my bank balance was now $500 lower. I went home, checked my online statement, and sure enough: there was a transaction in the process of posting.

Someone had made a Western Union Transaction for $338. I panicked and called my bank to explain what happened. The bank told me that I need to call Western Union to find out what happened, and what kind of fraud protection they have. The phone number on the bank transaction didn’t work, so I had to go online to find others. I found a number, called it, got transfered to the right person, and gave them my name and the possible credit card number that the thief had used.

Once they had that, they gave me all the information they could.

Someone had called into Western Union and wanted to wire money to Brian Anderton in Scottsdale, AZ. Apparently Western Union only requires the following information:

  • name
  • date of birth
  • phone number
  • credit card number, and
  • verification code.

With that information, Western Union attempted to debit my account to this person, whom I do not know. The transaction failed. The thief provided the wrong phone number for that credit card, but they did have the right date of birth, which scares me. I’m not sure where they got my date of birth. Maybe from a file on my laptop? Or from my passport?

(I kept a folder on my laptop that contained information like old tax returns in PDF, investment information, welcome e-mails from online banks, etc. Against my better judgment, I had not encrypted these with Windows XP. If you encrypt files in Windows XP, they cannot be accessed if someone changes the password for your account. As a computer network administrator, I know that it’s easy to find free and easy tools to change passwords. FYI: File Encryption is a feature in Windows XP Pro, but not in the Home edition.)

In the end, I’m still without a laptop, and I have to do lots of reporting. Here’s what I’ve learned you should do if you have a similar problem:

  1. File a police report.
  2. Notify our bank(s).
  3. Notify all credit card companies and entities about the lost items (including the U.S. State Department for a lost passport).
  4. Watch your account activity.

There are some steps you can take to prevent problems, too. Before you go on a trip, document what you brought with you. Leave a copy of this information at home, and bring a copy with you. Also, make sure that you have insurance on the personal items you take

I didn’t have any insurance. I am a renter, but I don’t have renter’s insurance. I’d like to get a policy on photographic equipment and computer equipment soon — this is the second time that this kind of theft has occurred. If anyone knows of a good policy underwriter, I would appreciate it.

Also, if you bought a Dell laptop recently, you can report your it stolen on their database. If anyone tries to format the hard disk, then tries to install Windows XP on it, they will need to get drivers. With luck, they will use the Dell service tag to try to get help for it. With luck, they’ll be caught.

You might think that I was hopping mad. I was at first — I’m a photographer, and I lost some great pictures I had taken the day before. But I wasn’t really too stressed out because:

  1. I back up my pictures and files regularly, and sync them between different computers.
  2. Sound financial planning will allow me to bounce back from this no problem.
  3. Remaining calm has helped to make the experience less traumatic.

Being calm really helped. Knowing that I only lost something that was replaceable helped tremendously. And knowing that this won’t put me in the poor house let me make good decisions about what to do next. The theft does cause problems, however. The theft has also pushed me to do things that I had once not really bothered to do, such as start working to sell my photos. (I keep putting it off.)

My experience might help your readers who ask “why bother with personal finance?” Personal finance helped me. Had I not made sound savings plans, and had the know-how to check things after the theft, I would have been in a world of hurt.

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