On my way to the 2011 Financial Blogger Conference last year I encountered three young men who'd made a non-traditional career choice: mugging tired-looking, middle-aged women pulling suitcases.
They got me as I headed for the train to the airport, taking a little over $80 and other wallet contents. (Also my peace of mind.)
Afterward I did a mental inventory of what I'd lost. It wasn't easy, given that I hyperventilating on adrenaline and rage. For days I had “Oh, crap” moments as I realized what else had been taken: debit and credit cards, bank deposit slip, loyalty cards, library card, Mensa card and a check from my brand-new business account. (I'd planned to reimburse my roommate, who'd already paid for the hotel.)
This isn't an article about avoiding street crime but rather about reducing its impact, from minor aggravation (hello, friendly folks at the Division of Motor Vehicles!) to the potential for credit-card and identity fraud. I'd like for you to learn from what I did right and especially from what I did wrong.
What's in your wallet?
Quick! Name everything in your billfold. No peeking.
Nope, I couldn't do it either. (See “Oh, crap,” above.) Among other things, I was carrying a gift card and a loyalty card to a local burger joint, my Seattle library card, and bread-outlet and teriyaki-joint punch cards. The wallet also held a card for a department store I rarely enter. Why? Inertia. I left it in there after using it once.
Why was I carrying that stuff to a business weekend in Chicago? My only excuse is that I was up to my hairline in deadline, working right up until 10 minutes before I headed for the light rail. Thus I skipped my usual pre-travel routine, i.e., paring down my wallet and putting my driver's license in a pants pocket for easy airport security access.
Right now, before you put it off for another six months, make a list of what's in your wallet. Should you meet your own trio of thieving knuckleheads, you'll know which calls you need to make.
List only the 800 number for each card, obviously, rather than the card number itself. The customer service rep can verify your identity through security questions.
Some options for storing your oh-crap list: with a service like Wallet Garden, on a thumb drive, as a Google doc, e-mailed to yourself, or on your phone, tablet or laptop.
As noted, paranoiacs like me do paper versions, on the theory that muggers might find a smartphone or tablet awfully attractive.
Just don't keep the list in your wallet.
Set up a perimeter
Use that list immediately. Don't wait until the next morning or the next business day. Less than 15 minutes after the wallet left my possession those punks were using my credit card to buy sandwiches.
Within an hour of the mugging I'd canceled several credit and debit cards and frozen four bank accounts (personal and business). Upon returning to Seattle I closed the bank accounts on the off-chance the thieves were organized enough to print fake checks.
Here's an example of the aggravation factor mentioned earlier: Closing those accounts meant I had to re-do automated transactions. Those included PayPal, utility bills, automated savings at an online bank, a monthly charitable contribution, and payments for health and life insurance.
Corollary aggravation: I neglected to re-establish every account promptly. It's downright irritating when a cell-phone company not only gives you the electronic stink-eye, but is justified in doing so — after all, the payment didn't clear because you forgot to give the new credit card number.
Please remove anything with bank routing numbers from your wallet, bag or briefcase. If you have automatic payments, list which entities are connected to which account. After a couple of years you might forget you even have life insurance, let alone which credit card covers the monthly tariff.
What's NOT in your wallet
As noted, there was no reason to carry that department-store credit card. Lesson learned: The replacement plastic is stored in a locked cabinet.
When I'm home, my wallet holds one credit card and very little cash, and I keep my debit card in a coat pocket. While traveling I carry some cash in my wallet but most of it gets divided between a front pants pocket and a coat pocket. I also put a second credit card in another coat pocket.
My theory/fondest hope is that a thief would be satisfied with the cash and card in my wallet. If he asked me to turn out my pants pockets, he'd get only some of my money. He's less likely to have me empty all four coat pockets, too. (And one of my jackets has a fifth, hidden pocket.)
Guard your ID
As noted, my driver's license usually isn't in my wallet when I travel. Not this time, dammit. Fortunately, I was able to order a new one by mail.
I recently learned that a relative stored his Social Security card in his wallet. I suggested he take it out. He's lucky that he never got robbed, since that card is gold to an identity thief.
However, the SS number is part of his Medicare card ID. Here's a solution: Photocopy the card, then black-Sharpie-out the last four digits. Carry this in your wallet, bringing the actual card out only for medical appointments.
If you get hit by a bus, the hospital will at least know you have Medicare. The billing office can get the last four digits when you wake up.
An ordinary health insurance card is potentially damaging, too, due to the possibility of medical identify theft. (Liz Weston wrote an interesting and scary article about this for MSN Money.) If someone uses your insurance card to get emergency-room care, his medical conditions become yours. Suppose you're turned down for life insurance on the grounds that you're riddled with hepatitis?
Consider doctoring (so to speak) your health-care card a la the Medicare Sharpie maneuver. In my case, I arranged with the HMO to require photo identification; I don't carry the card in my billfold any longer, either.
Be careful what you carry in yours. Getting robbed is bad enough. Frantically trying to remember what you've lost just adds to the trauma. Please take a few minutes now to do a wallet audit. Make that list, too — and believe me when I say I hope you never need it.
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.