Updated on 07.04.08

The Danger of Losing Your Wallet – And How to Protect Yourself

Trent Hamm

walletNear the end of a recent long trip, my wife misplaced her wallet. She carries a traditional small pocket wallet, which contains her driver’s license, a few credit cards, a few customer reward program cards, and a few other personal items.

We spent the better part of three days searching around our home for the wallet and have finally concluded that in fact it’s lost. So now comes the painful part – what do we do now?

Tip #1: You can take preventative action right now to make the loss of a wallet easier. Just clean out your wallet down to the bare minimum, then photocopy or scan both sides of everything in your wallet. This will help you to easily remember everything that was misplaced and easily deal with the consequences of card cancellation and replacement.

The first step is to contact the credit card companies, as well as your bank. If the wallet is potentially in the hands of someone else, you need to make sure that you’re not going to be liable for charges they may run up on your cards. Most likely, you’ll be issued a new card with a new number and the old card will be cancelled, which just means that you’ll have to wait a week or so and things will be back to normal.

You should also get a new driver’s license as soon as possible. You’ll likely need to take in multiple forms of identification to prove who you are, so find out what the rules are in your state before you head off in a rush.

Tip #2: Carry minimal identification in your wallet as a preventative measure. Try to avoid having your Social Security number in there if at all possible, as that will make identity theft much easier if you were to lose it. You’ll probably have a driver’s license in there, but make sure that it doesn’t include your SSN and has only minimal identifying information on it.

Another vital step is to file a police report. Likely, it won’t help you find your wallet, but it does provide a paper trail that you are following up on this. Plus, if your identity is used to make purchases, you can use this police record as a vital tool to help clear your credit record. Be as specific as possible on the report, and keep a copy for yourself.

You should also put a “security alert” on your credit report which tells any companies that access your credit report to verify your identity before issuing any credit. You can do this by calling up any of the three credit bureaus – Experian (1-888-397-3742), Equifax (1-800-525-6285), or TransUnion (1-800-680-7289) – and asking about their procedure for doing this. A security alert issued by one company is picked up by the other two automatically.

Tip #3: Keep your wallet clean. The “Costanza wallet,” overstuffed with receipts and notes and junk, is a personal security concern. Get rid of all of the junk you don’t use regularly – your wallet is not your briefcase.

When buying a new wallet, get a thin one that doesn’t slip easily. I tend to carry my wallet in my front pocket, which requires it to be thin; however, it never slips at all and is hard for pickpockets to access.

The most important thing? Don’t panic. Remain cool and calm. Retrace your steps carefully and see if you can locate it. Then follow the steps above. Panic does nothing more than delay the things you’ll need to do to keep your identity and your money safe.

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  1. Andys says:

    Great Post and some good points to keep in mind. It is also just as important to protect yourself online as well as offline. I wrote about this recently based on a identity theft incident and it is amazing how many steps we take to protect our self off line, but how little we look after our online security until we have an incident.

    The other thing to add is keep a list of all your credit card numbers and the phone number of the issuing company. You should do this today so that if you lose a credit card you are not running around in a frenzy trying to find the numbers.

  2. Kacie says:

    One idea: Go to your driver’s branch and get a state-issued ID card. Keep it somewhere safe in your house.

    That way, if your wallet goes missing, you’ll still have valid ID for going to your bank and making a withdrawl, and it ought to help get another driver’s licence.

    I guess if you already have a passport, you’re covered.

  3. ChristianPF says:

    I agree I like to keep my credit card numbers programmed into my cell phone – so if the time comes, no matter where I am I can call to let them know.

  4. Nick says:

    If you have a debit card issued by a small credit union, first thing you do is call them and put a hold on it RIGHT AWAY before you know if its lost or stolen. Many of these debit cards are as good as cash and if someone uses the card you ARE liable for the charges.

    Another trick I use is when I sign the back of my debit/credit cards, I also put “See I.D.” on the back. This way if people check the signature they usually ask to see your ID. This can help in thwarting thieves if your wallet is stolen. Not all cashiers will check cards however.

  5. These are all great tips!! One more, DO NOT CARRY YOUR SSN Card…. I had my purse stolen and the thief was allowed to use it as ID and wrote an entire book of checks on my account. Quick action also will save you trouble. Get on the phone with your bank and card companies ASAP!! By my doing this, I was able to give the police information which led to the capture of the thief. She spent Christmas in jail… that was repayment enough for me!!

  6. Also, if your debit card is sponsered by Visa or Mastercard you are not liable for the charges, but it may take some time to get the money put back in your account.

  7. Rick says:

    I want to correct some things Nick said (#4). First, with most debit cards, the fraud liability is the same as with credit cards — i.e. most banks won’t hold you liable for any fradulent activity on the card, as long as it’s reported fraud within a given number of days. Be sure to check with your own bank for the exact details on this, though, preferably *before* fraud actually takes place.

    Second, writing “See ID” won’t do a thing for credit cards. The Visa merchant agreements specifically prohibit requiring the customer to show ID. The same agreements also require a valid signature. So you may have heard the story about the cashier who made the customer sign his card right there at the point of sale, and then sign the receipt. She then compared the two signatures, and sure enough, they matched! Well, that’s actually what the Visa merchant agreements require.

    So if you don’t sign your card, the thief who steals it will, and then the signatures will match. So please, sign your card with your real signature.

    Again, either way, you won’t be held liable for any fradulent activity on your cards. But do whatever you can do to prevent fraud up front, instead of needing to go through the headaches of trying to get such charges removed later.

  8. Tony Katz says:

    Nick – you are spreading misinformation.

    1) You are not liable for fraudulent charges on a debit card.

    2) Writing SEE ID on your credit card is almost always prohibited by your cardholder agreement. The card is not valid unless signed and a merchant can refuse to honor it without a valid signature.

  9. Kim says:

    Timely! I lost my wallet yesterday and broke one of the rules – I panicked.

    I retraced my steps and found it in a bathroom stall in my office building where it had lain for two hours or more. Happy ending, but the experience gave me a good dose of the “what ifs”.

    I’ve already removed my CC from the wallet as I rarely use it.

  10. Nick says:

    I specifically had a debit card stolen and had around $600 worth of fraudulent charges. I COULD NOT get my money back. I contacted mastercard, I talked to the bank president, I contacted the DA, all told me that whether or not you are responsible for fraudulent charges is a function of your card issuer when the card is in fact a debit device.

    I never said not to sign your card, I said add “see ID” in addition to signing it. Read my entire post before you comment.

  11. Donnovan says:

    Kim – Here is something to think about, you say your wallet was out of your hands for two hours, well “what if” someone found it and instead of taking anything decided to snap photos (who doesn’t have a camera phone) of every card in your wallet, this could be done in probably 5 minutes tops.

    Now they have all the credit card information needed to make purchases online, they know when the cards expire, so they have time. They can wait a week, a month, even a year before using this information.

    And you happily go about believing that you found your wallet and nothing bad happened.

    I think in most cases if the wallet was out of your possession for a significant amount of time even if you recover it again it may be safer to have new cards issued.

  12. Joe says:

    I learned my lesson a few years ago when my wallet was stolen at an amusement park. I immediately canceled all of my card in my wallet, but I forgot one…my Home Equity card. Luckily the credit card company noticed a few small charges and called me within 12 hours.

    Something that I’ve started recently is periodically scanning the entire contents of my wallet, front and back. Then emailing it my gmail account. If it is lost or stolen again, all I need is my smartphone or a computer to get all the info/phone numbers/account number I need.

  13. Joe says:

    I learned my lesson a few years ago when my wallet was stolen at an amusement park. I immediately canceled all of my card in my wallet, but I forgot one…my Home Equity card. Luckily the credit card company noticed a few small charges and called me within 12 hours. The charges were reversed after I confirmed it had been stolen.

    Something that I’ve started recently is periodically scanning the entire contents of my wallet, front and back. Then emailing it my gmail account. If it is lost or stolen again, all I need is my smartphone or a computer to get all the info/phone numbers/account number I need.

  14. deepali says:

    Where I live, if you waited 3 days to report anything, you’d be in serious trouble! By then, someone would have maxed out your cards, drained your bank account, stolen your identity, and be sunning himself in Fiji already… :)

    Around here, the first you do (immediately, even if you think the wallet is still in the house) is cancel all the cards, including the debit card. And as a side note, you might be liable for charges on your bank account depending on the agreement and the timeframe. You do not automatically get the same protection as you would with a credit card.

    Then you file the police report, which you have to do before you can get a new driver’s license. Then notify the credit bureaus. Then send copies of the police report to the banks and credit card companies to recoup losses. It’s really quite a pain!

  15. liv says:

    Yeah, I sign and put SEE ID on it too. In CA, I am asked almost 90% of the time for my ID. They’re just good about that here I guess.

    I keep too much stuff in my wallet, I guess I better clean it out…I want to keep my Student ID in there for movie discounts! :P

  16. K says:

    To back up Nick, debit cards are not guaranteed to be protected against fraudulent activity, although most say they are.

    I had a $5 charge that the bank noticed was out of the ordinary, and when it turned out that it wasn’t me, they refunded it. A while later, there was an $80 charge that showed up and I reported and they wouldn’t do anything. So don’t assume you’re protected with a debit card.

  17. !wanda says:

    A thin wallet is a good idea. However, it is not as crucial for women as men. Nice clothes for women, even the “dressy casual” type, often do not contain pockets, necessitating a purse. I personally prefer small, light purses, but some women essentially use one like a backpack.

  18. "Mo" Money says:

    Good tips. I especially like photo copying the items that you carry. This could be very helpful in case of loss.

  19. BigO says:

    I’ve always been a fan of programs like splashId that store your credit card info (as well as any other logins/numbers) encrypted on your phone. It’s safer than keeping your info in plain text on your phone, and syncs with your computer for easy backup.

  20. Angie says:

    Good idea, I have “see id” on my card and I’m rarely asked for id. Most stores I frequent these days have the card kiosk and all I do is swipe my card. Sadly, I think this is great for identity thieves, who don’t need to worry about passing themselves off as someone else.

  21. Dave says:


    Just out of curiosity, what is your advice if someone “makes sure” their driver’s license doesn’t have ther SSN on it, and find that it indeed is on there? This seemed like silly advice to me. Petition the state DMV?

    – Dave

  22. Sandy E. says:

    I’ve done the photo-copying thing of the front and back of all my cards, but took it just one step further. I looked up the “report your credit card lost or stolen” to both my credit card and my debit card and programmed them into my cell phone. That way if those cards are lost or stolen while I’m out, I don’t have to wait until I get home to look up the phone numbers and report it. Sometimes time is of the essence in these matters.

  23. Sandy E. says:

    Oh sorry – I didn’t read any of the comments and now that I have a little, I see this point had already been made.

  24. rhymeswithlibrarian says:

    “A thin wallet is a good idea. However, it is not as crucial for women as men. Nice clothes for women, even the “dressy casual” type, often do not contain pockets, necessitating a purse. I personally prefer small, light purses, but some women essentially use one like a backpack.”

    Personally, I won’t buy pants without pockets, because I refuse to carry a purse. To me it just makes no sense to put your essential possessions in something that can be easily snatched, or put down and forgotten.

    I often wear an actual backpack for things like lunch, water bottle, change of clothes, sunscreen, notebooks… but keys and wallet stay in my front pockets (unless I’m wearing scrubs for work, in which case they go in a velcro-sealing side pocket).

    Having said that, I realize some women might find it to show up at some kinds of jobs with a backpack… but why not insist on pants with pockets for wallet and keys, then carry the less crucial stuff in the purse?

  25. Xtine says:

    Duplicate driver’s licenses are only $10 in my state.

    Because I’m INCREDIBLY forgetful (seriously, I have three sets of spare keys. One stays in my car, one in a safe place outside my home, and another inside, to address the ‘dammit, where are my keys?’ issue [the kitchen has been remodeled, so we’ve been without a key rack since may, so that habit is gone])

    I keep a spare license in my glovebox, solely in case I get pulled over. I keep one in my wallet – duh, and I keep a floater.

    I drive a lot, and until gas prices made me slow down, very fast and aggressively. The $10 for a spare license is worth it – “I forgot my wallet!” might be the thing that pushes the cop’s decision to write that ticket.

  26. a.b. says:

    I’ve had my wallet with ssn card stolen/misplaced on a few occasions and have yet to experience any identity theft (although I am proactive and check). Most people are after the quick cash and the likelihood of the individual who stumbles across your wallet having the skills and contacts to steal your id without getting caught at the first stop is not big.

    As a cautionary note, the person who breaks into your home most likely does have the contacts to strip your life away, so if you are going to make copies of all of your id, ccs, and other important docs make sure they are in a properly secured safe and not hidden in your underwear drawer.

  27. Todd says:

    I just read in an article on msn.com last month that you should NOT show ID with a credit or debit card because a smart clerk could quickly memorize your date of birth and driver’s license number and/or address. They’d then have this information in addition to your credit card number, which would make identity theft easier.

    Did anyone else read this? I’ve always preferred to have them ask to see my ID because I thought that approach would make theft much more difficult.

  28. A Week In The Life of A Redhead says:

    I find it a bit humorous when people worry so much about their wallets but never bother to ask where the information on credit application goes. Do you have any idea how many people in the bank see your car financing application, VISA application or home loan application. What about the loan officer that drives around with your information in their car? How about the escrow people from the copiers to the couriers. You’d be shocked at just how many people get to see all your financial information when you apply for any kind of credit. I won’t even begin to discuss how everyone should use a shredder for all their mail. A wallet is really small pebbles compared to the information in a credit file.

  29. Dean says:

    In the UK when paying with a debit/credit card *you* put your card in the card machine and you type in your PIN to authorise the transaction. No signing, no plain swiping.

    The downside is, if someone knows your PIN and then acquires your card, you’re liable for any charges as they wouldn’t be able to make fradulent transactions if you kept your PIN secure.

  30. Jeff says:

    Took you advise and scanned my cards.

    Be sure to review the scan-some of my cards have pictures on them and the numbers are hard to read.

    Flip the card over and jot down the security code on the back.

    Write the customer service number next to each card. You’ll have all the numbers handy if you do lose your card.

  31. Abbie says:

    The best tip is “don’t panic”.

    Last summer my boyfriend lost his wallet while trying to get a new license at the DMV, so he had *every* form of ID in it – old license, SS card, birth certificate – plus credit and debit cards. He did exactly what you said here and avoided any identity theft. And, despite his panicking, it took a couple months, but he did get new copies of everything.

  32. Karen says:

    Something else – I realized after I lost my wallet a few weeks ago that it contained nothing with my phone number or email address on it – meaning that if a do-gooder did find it, I’d have no way of knowing that it was in safe hands until well after I’d already gone through the hassle of cancelling all my cards. Fortunately for me, mine turned up that night in a bag of lettuce in my fridge. Now there is a clearly written “If found please contact…” card inside.

  33. Ruth says:

    One other thing, which I discovered the hard way.

    If you are married/whatever and have joint credit card accounts, make sure each partner doesn’t have duplicates in their wallet. My husband and I were vacationing and he lost his wallet. Cancelled everything – no problem. Then we realised that all of his cards were my cards were cancelled! Not a problem when you are close to home maybe, but in a foreign city staying in hotels that need credit card authorisation = recipe for disaster.

    Now, we each carry one. That is, we have a VISA and a Mastercard which we are both signatories on. I carry the VISA and he has the Mastercard, and the duplicates are locked in the safe at home. So if we need to cancel a card we still have one available to use.

  34. Mister S says:

    The most crucial thing to do with a credit card is write “WITH PHOTO ID ONLY” on the back with a CD/DVD marker. This way no one can access funds because when charging at a store there is no way they will get away with it unless they look remotely like you. Then the only way they can charge you is over the internet so the other method i take is memorize your security number on the back and then cover it with a marker. This way even if your wallet does get stolen or go’s missing, its useless, just a hassle to get everything back.

  35. Bill says:

    Why you should avoid debit cards:


    As a former (reformed?) banker, I use only credit cards.

    Debit cards are a convenience for the bank, NOT the consumer.

  36. Kim Dresel says:

    A comment on filing a police report: My wallet was stolen when I foolishly left my purse in the restroom at Target a few years ago–it was only about a minute before I realized it, but long enough for someone to rifle through my purse and leave with my wallet. I made a report to store security, but they assured me there was no reason to file a police report. Of course they were unable to recover it.
    Then, about 8 months later I received a call from the police who had stopped someone carrying my ID. They asked about a police report, and because I had not filed one, they were unable to pursue any charges related to the theft. I assume the person was arrested for trying to pass off an ID not her own, and/or whatever she was stopped for, but how I wish I could have compounded her legal issues even more!!! (By the way, my immediately cancelled credit card had over $5000 in charges in the first 2 days after the wallet was stolen. . .)

  37. lex says:

    I don’t use wallet at all and think others can also avoid it.

  38. John says:

    The only preventative tip you need:



  39. Kai says:

    A note for those mentioning to get a duplicate ID – you’re lucky, wherever you live. In Alberta for sure, and possibly the rest of Canada, this is not only impossible, but actually illegal. They do not issue more than one, and if you lose one, and they replace it (for a fee), you are actually required to destroy the original immediately should you ever find it. To be caught with more than one license would be a huge fine.

  40. Pam says:

    What if you are single, no family, your wallet is stolen, you are about to rent a car, just realize it and aside from a an airline ticket you have no resources for twenty-four hours. This happened to me to make me think through this carefully as I travel a lot. Assign one or two people back at the office. Find a friend. Also carry a 1000 American Express Travelers Checque in a backup place in your wallet and list the numbers in your cell phone (the numbers Amex provides). I also got a AAA Money Card – not linked to a bank account and Paypal account to keep in a REAL EMERGENCY folder in my bag, sewn to bottom. Does anybody else have any ideas (I live in an earthquake zone – San Francisco and am always looking for ways to examine the worst case scenario here. Thanks! Great posts to all!

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