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What to do when you lose your wallet

You just saw it on the counter. Honestly, it was right there a second ago. Yet in a flash, your wallet or purse is AWOL and the hunt is on.

So when do you call off the search and dial up the credit card companies to cancel your accounts?

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In these days of burgeoning identity theft, industry insiders insist you pick up the phone instantly. Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy at Money Management International, lives by a more real-world time frame. If you're in public -- as in you had it at Macy's but not JC Penney's -- she imposes a 15-minute rule, just enough time to retrace your most recent steps. If you're at home, she increases that limit to an hour.

But when the clock runs down, here's the drill:

Call the credit card companies
You should keep a list of credit card account numbers and phone numbers to the issuing banks' customer service departments somewhere in your home. But few Americans find the motivation until they're frantically searching for a billfold. Credit card companies established easy-to-recall numbers like 1-800-VISA 911 or 1-800-MasterCard with this in mind. These customer service reps walk you through the process and notify the individual banks.

Expect to pass a security test at this gate, Williams says. Could be they'll ask your address, mother's maiden name or details on a recent purchase you made. "They're trying to protect you, not make you cry," she says.

Tell the representative that you have lost your card, followed by the place, time and amount of the last transaction you know you made. Although the ultimate decision rests solely with the issuer, this call doesn't automatically commit you to the disruption of switching account numbers, says John Schettino, vice president in charge of security issues at MasterCard International. It is possible to merely flag the old number for unauthorized activity.

"With the competition out there today, many banks will work with the cardholder much more closely than in previous times. So if you don't want to block the number because you're headed to Hawaii on vacation, they understand that," Schettino says.

Be aware this flag route means you may be delayed at the store the next time you use the found card since the credit card company needs to verify it's really you rather than an impostor.

"I'd say if you haven't found the card after a few hours of searching, cancel it. Better safe than sorry," says Rosetta Jones, director of VISA USA.

If you take the cancellation route, both VISA and MasterCard can send replacement plastic into your hands anywhere in the world within 24 hours. In some cases, banks send the new cards to the airport where you are scheduled to land. Everything from your previous account -- amounts due, incentive programs, interest rate deals -- transfers to the new plate, although it's up to you to update merchants with recurring charges, such as your cable bill or health club dues.

The Federal Trade Commission reminds you to pick different Personal Identification Numbers and passwords for these new accounts, too.

Some companies offer to handle these account-closing chores for a fee, a temptation you should resist, says Chris McGoey, an identity theft expert who runs McGoey Security Consulting in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "I'd never feel comfortable handing all my credit information and personal details to some company. Who are these people? Who do they employ? Do they do background screening? It's not worth the risk," he explains.

Notify the bureau of motor vehicles
Canceling credit cards takes approximately five minutes each; replacing your driver's license requires more tenacity. "Some areas may take the report over the telephone to put an alert on your license in case someone is stopped for a traffic violation," Williams notes. "But you probably still need to go in person for the replacement."

Arrive armed with back-up documentation to prove your existence: a passport, birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage license.

If your state still prints your Social Security number on the driver's license (you were too intelligent to carry that Social Security card in your wallet, weren't you?), the game gets uglier. It's not as if you can get a new government ID number in a snap.

"You usually need an extreme case or governmental support like the witness protection program to change your SSN," says McGoey.

Yet if that number turns up in the wrong hands, a stranger has the key to your medical records, IRS payments, passport data and more.


-- Updated: July 1, 2005




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