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Some tips on preventing losses from identity theft

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: January 29, 2004

Have you ever lost your wallet or had it stolen? You get a horrible sinking feeling. Then rational thinking takes over. What exactly was in your wallet, and how do you keep your entire identity from being stolen?

That’s almost more important than the cash you lost, because a serious thief could do a lot of damage to your financial life. Here are a few tips that won’t take away the shock, but could eliminate some of the potential consequences. But you must be prepared in advance.

Start by making a list of all the credit cards you keep in your wallet, along with the account numbers. But in a moment of panic, that list won’t be much help if you don’t know what number to call to report your card stolen. So add to your list each company’s toll-free number to report a lost card.

Sort the deck

Then sort out the other cards you carry. They may include health and auto insurance cards, a health club membership card, airline frequent traveler or club cards, a telephone calling card, and maybe even a library card. Those will be a real hassle to replace. But it will be a lot easier if you line them up on a copier machine and make front and back copies of each, and add telephone numbers if you can.

If your checkbook is part of your wallet, your identity problem is taken to a new dimension. Remember, even your deposit tickets can be useful to an identity thief. It’s another good reason to consider secure online bill pay. Your debit card is a handy alternative to checks. And, of course, you’d never write your PIN on your card, or nearby in your wallet.

While we’re on the subject of using debit or credit cards wisely, you should know that the rules of the Visa and MasterCard association prohibit merchants from requiring you to give a telephone number, driver’s license number, or home address when using their cards. That’s information you definitely don’t want on a credit-card receipt. If you do choose to give your phone number, make it your work phone.

Your Social Security number is a key ingredient in preventing fraud. So don’t carry that old paper card around with you.

Fraud alert

There’s one more step you can take to keep your identity from being stolen. Immediately contact all three credit bureaus, and place a fraud alert on your credit report, using your name and Social Security number. The alert will stay in place for 90 days, and if anyone tries to open new credit, or charge a huge purchase, you’ll be contacted to verify the transaction.

The three major credit bureaus are:

* Equifax (888) 766-0008;

* Experian (888) 397-3742;

* Trans Union (800) 680-7289;

In the spring, a consortium of the major banks in the country will announce a new service so you can call just one number and notify all of the bureaus, as well as your bank.

In the meantime, it’s wise to get a copy of your credit report once a year. The credit bureaus listed above will give you their credit report at no charge, and now they will give you a “three-in-one” report of all bureaus for just $34.95

The latest scam

One of my readers passed along an e-mail describing the latest identity theft scheme. Basically, it involves receiving a call from someone who announces he is from the security and fraud department at either Visa or MasterCard. You’re asked to confirm a recent purchase. When you say you didn’t buy the item, you’re asked to authenticate your identity by giving the four-digit security code printed on your card.

Of course, that information gives the thief the ability to run up a huge bill on your account. Remember, Visa and MasterCard or the issuing banks never ask for information that is on your card, because they already know that information!

You can help thwart the incentive to profit from theft by contacting card issuers and the credit bureaus promptly. The peace of mind you’ll gain is worth the few minutes it will take you to compile the list of what’s in your wallet. That’s the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and is on the board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and McDonald’s Corp.

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