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Lost and Found: A Modern Financial Lesson

Besides feeling violated, I needed to focus on how to protect my identity.

Key points

  • Sign up for an Identity Protection Service, and talk about Identity protection with your children starting a young age.
  • Stop answering online quizzes that ask for your childhood home address or your childhood pet's name.
  • Don't carry your entire identity profile in your wallet, especially when traveling, and never carry your Social Security card.

I learned a serious lesson when I “lost” my handbag in New York City recently.

I am not sure if I dropped my handbag, or someone took it out of my arms when they walked by me. All I know is that one minute I was holding it, and the next it was gone. After an hour of retracing my steps over and over, I gave in to the sinking feeling in my gut: It was gone.

Not only did someone now have my license with a photo, several credit cards, and my Costco card; they also had the luxurious wallet and vitamin case with a Monet photo on the cover that my daughter bought for me in Paris. After I stopped moaning that someone else now had my prize possessions, including my prescription sunglasses, I got to work protecting myself.

I tried to remember which of my credit cards were actually in my wallet, rather than sitting on my desk in my home office. As my adrenaline surged, blurring my memory, I decided to just cancel all my cards. Next, I emailed my financial advisor, Scott Cirelli. I knew he would know what to do to protect my finances and credit.

As he clearly outlined the steps I needed to take, I asked myself why I didn’t already have some of these protections in place. After all, I was lucky to know the minute my wallet was taken. But many times, people steal credit card numbers, driver’s licenses, and Social Security numbers without the owner knowing.

Here is what I learned from Scott. I hope it can help you protect yourself as well.

  1. Sign up for a credit monitoring service.
  2. Freeze your credit by contacting one of the Big 3 credit bureaus. Follow the steps to freeze your credit. Once it is done at one bureau, it will be frozen at the others.
  3. Sign up for an Identity Protection service. Most of these services will monitor reports about crimes committed in your name, malware, and other dangers.
  4. Always choose to have your mail sent electronically instead of relying on physical mail.
  5. Use a gel pen when writing checks; ink can be washed off.
  6. Get a VPN to use when logging into public WiFi.
  7. Store personal information such as the title to your car, Social Security numbers, jewelry, wills, and cash in a personal safe secured to the floor in your home.
  8. Lock your car at all times. Limit the amount of information you keep in your car.
  9. Protect your key fob by getting a singal-blocking pouch. This pouch is lined with metallic material that can stop access to your vehicle by blocking your car key fob from transmitting its code to the vehicle.

After my experience, I now only carry a cross-body handbag. I am trying to get used to my new sunglasses — why couldn’t the thief just send me back my glasses? — and I continue to search for a new, chic, lightweight wallet. I also continue to wonder who is out there, pretending to be a 50-something, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named Nancy.

I hope that you decide to utilize these protections, or at least do some research on protecting yourself financially in case of theft. Also, it is never too early to start talking to your children about protecting their identity, both in-person, by limiting what they carry in their wallets and backpacks, and online. Here are 6 things to keep in mind while online, no matter what your age or occupation:

  1. Just say no to quizzes. Announce your wizard name, and thieves get a free record of your birth month, day, and year. Name that dog, and serve up the name of your first pet (a common “forgot your password” question). Middle initial, name of your first child, favorite movie? If you wouldn’t drive around with this information posted in your car window, don’t share it online in quiz form.
  2. Sweepstakes and “free” offers almost always have a cost. Usually, the payment is adding your name, email, mailing address, phone number and birthdate to a list that can be sold to the highest (or any) bidder. Read the rules carefully before filling out any form with this information to make sure your information will not be shared with third parties.
  3. Be cautious of anything that says “click here” even if it is from a known biller, such as your phone or cable company. Scams have gotten very specific and will tempt you with pitches such as “You overpaid your last bill. We’re issuing you a $10 refund” followed by a link, and they are sent via email, text, and other messaging apps, so be careful.
  4. “Friends of friends” aren’t really friends. Don’t accept that the name matches the person unless they can verify that the friend request or chat request is authentic. And if you get a friend request from a person you thought you were already connected with, call or text them before accepting. It could be a scam, even if they are using your Aunt Mildred’s name and photo.
  5. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. This applies equally to a great deal on a pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing, a potential investment opportunity, or a potential romantic partner. Google the person, app, company, or website you are considering before divulging information about yourself, and especially before handing over a credit card and identifying information such as email, snail mail, or phone number.
  6. Get a good cookie blocker, and use it. When visiting a site that requires cookies, click on options and choose the required cookies only. Cookies collect a wealth of information about you that advertisers and other parties can use to target you.