Protecting yourself

Personal finance writer, heed thine own advice

Melody Warnick

You know that saying about the cobbler’s family going without shoes? The same goes for the personal finance writer who never follows her own advice.

Just last week, I put the finishing touches on an article for about avoiding credit card mistakes while you’re traveling. All the experts agreed: Since credit cards do occasionally get stolen, write down all your card numbers, along with issuer phone numbers, and store them in a safe place. “Ooh, smart advice!” I remember thinking.

Purse thief

That’s why I was pretty quick to recognize the irony when that very afternoon, my purse, including my wallet full of credit cards, was stolen from my car at the neighborhood pool. And no, I didn’t have my credit card numbers written down.

You don’t have to tell me: I’m a moron. But I figured that after years of being fairly careless with my purse, this stuff simply doesn’t happen to me. This time it did, and it was ugly. Here’s what you can learn from my mistakes:

1. Write your credit card numbers down. Not kidding. Do it right now. By having all that info in a safe place, it’ll be that much easier to cancel your cards if they get stolen. As for me, I had to go through the rigmarole of answering annoying security questions, like “Who owns your home mortgage?” and “What model year is your car?”, just to prove that I wasn’t a fraudster myself.

2. Be easy to reach. In the sodden after-pool chaos, I didn’t even notice that my purse was missing from the car. It wasn’t until 45 minutes later, when I checked my email, that I saw the Fraud Protection Alert message from Capital One, triggered by the thieves’ wild spending spree. (Liquor store! Walmart! CiCi’s Pizza! It was quite the party.) Because the issuers had my latest contact info, I was able to cancel my cards quickly.

3. Slim down your wallet. Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert, told me that he keeps only essentials in his wallet: driver’s license, two credit cards, debit card, and Costco card. That’s it. Not me. My wallet had all of the above, plus insurance cards, savings cards, gift cards, membership cards, even a MasterCard I didn’t use anymore. It took hours of mental spelunking to figure out what I had lost. (I finally remembered the Target debit card hours later.) Remove whatever you don’t need on a daily basis, then take an inventory of what you do have.

4. Don’t carry extra identifying info. It was a pain to lose my driver’s license, but more disastrous would have been losing Social Security cards or birth certificates, since they’re key to identity theft. Leaving those papers in a lockbox at home was one thing I did right. Plus, I didn’t keep my PIN number anywhere in my wallet. If I had, it would have been just what the criminals needed to bleed my whole checking account dry.

In the end, I wasn’t on the hook for any of the fraudulent charges, so the only lasting pain came from my missing cash, purse and cell phone — plus the stress of a Friday night spent frantically canceling cards and an hour-long wait in the driver’s license office. Trust me, I’ve learned my lesson, and plan to take a lot more care with my wallet in the future. And yes, I’ll be writing down the numbers on my new credit cards.

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