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Losing your wallet and everything inside it is never pleasant, but when you're thousands of miles from home (and worse still, perhaps in a foreign country) it isn't merely unpleasant, it can be disastrous.

This three part article gives you helpful tips on how to plan for such an occurrence, how to quickly recover, and how to minimize the harm should your valuable documents fall into the wrong hands.

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Protect Yourself Against Document Loss

Potential Problems with 30 different types of information

Most of us keep almost everything essential in our wallet (or purse) meaning that if we lose this single item, we lose almost everything of value, all at the same time!

Part 1 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three



You're traveling somewhere and lose your wallet. All of a sudden, you find yourself without tickets, without credit cards, without ID, and perhaps without any money, and minus your passport, too.

If that happened to you, - and it happens to tens of thousands of people, every day - what would you do?

Are you prepared for such a disaster?

Where Problems Can Occur

Although you are more 'at risk' and more vulnerable when away from your home city, and substantially more so when out of your home country, theft or innocent document loss can occur anywhere at any time.

Don't wait until your next out of town or overseas trip to work through the material in these two articles. Do it today!

Valuable Things that can be Stolen

You should understand what you need to protect. Sure, we all know about the danger of losing a credit card, but you probably have a very wide range of items that could be stolen and which might be difficult to replace, or which could massively inconvenience you if lost.

The first thing to do is make an inventory of everything that could possibly be lost or stolen. Go through your wallet, go through your pockets, go through your handbag, go through your briefcase, go through your desk, go through your car, and so on, building up as long a list as possible of items of value that might be stolen.

By way of example, here are 30 (!) different categories of things that might end up on your list :

  • Employee ID

  • Club/Association Membership IDs

  • Driver's License

  • Library Card

  • Passport

  • Visas (if not fixed into passport), Green cards, etc

  • Other ID's, Licenses, Permits

  • Social Security Card

  • Health Insurance Cards

  • Medalert identifiers

  • Prescriptions

  • Vehicle Insurance Cards

  • Check Books (for banks, S&Ls, Money Market Accounts, etc)

  • ATM Cards

  • Debit Cards

  • Credit Cards

  • Other Account cards

  • Phone Calling Cards

  • Store and Other Discount Entitlement Cards

  • Prepaid stored value cards

  • Keys (to house, car, filing cabinets, desks, safes, etc)

  • Key Cards

  • Tickets and vouchers

  • Cash

  • Travelers Checks

  • Address Book

  • Cell Phone

  • PDA Organizer

  • Passwords and Access Codes

  • Other personal information

Now go and make your own list of everything you have, perhaps using the above headings as suggestions.

A Master List of Your Valuable Items

As you build your inventory of items above, write down also information for each item such as your account number or other identifier, and contact phone numbers for the organization that issued you with the item (both toll-free and direct numbers so you can telephone either within the US or internationally) plus any other information you might think to be helpful if trying to get a duplicate document, or to cancel the document if it is lost or stolen.

This master list - with a very important modifier to it that we'll discuss in part two - can become your emergency resource if anything subsequently disappears.

Protect your master list in its present form, because anyone who gets unauthorized access to this document can use it to take over your identity.

Keep Your Master List Up to Date

Once you've prepared your master list, you should subsequently review and update it, perhaps once every 3 - 6 months, depending on how regularly your personal documents evolve.

Remember that you're all the time renewing credit cards that expire, and probably also simply canceling some cards and adding new cards and in other ways evolving your personal profile, so make sure your master list remains accurate and helpful.

You are At Risk from more than Theft

Just as there are a wide range of items you have that are at risk, the nature of the risk also varies widely.

Note also that your risk is not just from theft. You might also innocently lose something, or you might break something or in any other way cause something to stop working. Or you might have items destroyed (in the wash, in a fire, or however) and not know what you'd lost or who to contact to replace it.

Another example would be an ATM card with an unreadable magnetic stripe - this is just as useless to you when you urgently need more cash as is a lost or stolen one.

A lost driver's license is going to give you the same problems as a stolen one when you're trying to rent a car and are unable to produce your license (or when you're stopped by a state trooper!).

More than just Financial Inconvenience

Imagine this - you lose your documents while somewhere overseas. You have no passport, no airline ticket, and no visa for your stay in that country, as well as no money and no credit cards.

Perhaps you then get randomly stopped for a document check, and all of a sudden you find yourself arrested for having no documents (this happens commonly in some countries).

Or, perhaps you keep out of jail in the meantime, but by the time you've managed to get a new passport and some money, your original (now lost) visa has expired. How do you think you're going to persuade the authorities to let you leave their country without a visa to show your lawful admittance to the country in the first place, let alone with whatever visa you had having already expired? In some countries you need to show your visa not only to be granted permission to enter the country but also to be granted permission to leave the country, too!

Or maybe you find yourself with no money and no credit cards, and you're stuck in a country that doesn't allow you to make collect calls back home to the US.

Or maybe you need some type of regular prescription medicine, and you've lost both your personal supply and also your prescription for refills.

Your personal 'Disaster Plan' has to plan for these situations and have pre-developed solutions to all foreseeable problems that might arise. We give you advice on how to respond to such solutions in part two of this series.

Identity Theft

The information in your wallet, purse, briefcase and elsewhere can, in many different ways, cause you to lose a great deal more than just some simple cash. The worst case scenario doesn't bear thinking about - ending up a victim of 'identity theft', whereby a person takes over your entire identity.

According to a GAO study, as many as 750,000 Americans suffer some form of identity theft every year.

In its simplest and least bad form, identity theft means financial identity theft. The thief gets brand new credit cards issued in your name but sent to their address. All of a sudden, you might find yourself with massive debts that you'll be struggling to prove are not truly your responsibility, destroyed credit, and ongoing problems for months to come.

But this is the 'best case' example of identity theft. The worst example can not only have your credit ruined, but see you in jail indefinitely. A thief can build himself an entirely new identity - your identity - and then, if ever arrested, use your identity. The next thing you know, you have a criminal record.

Worse still, the thief will likely end up with arrest warrants and/or unpaid judgments outstanding in your name. An innocent traffic stop or other encounter with the police might end up in an overnight or longer period of time in jail while you struggle to prove that you are not you (or that you are you, depending on the point of view of the person you're talking to!).

Some people have been arrested multiple times (more than ten), and each time have been locked up for more than 24 hours while struggling to repeatedly prove that they are not the person wanted on the arrest warrant.

Or the damage can be more subtle. Perhaps an illegal immigrant takes over your identity, and then starts moving from job to job, doing poorly, and building up a bad employment history. You apply for a job somewhere and all you know is that you don't get the job. What you don't know is that your potential new employer did a database search on you and uncovered 'your' bad past employment record; saw that it did not match up with your resume, and decided you must be lying and so chose not to proceed with hiring you.

Identity theft can be hard to detect, and even harder to undo. These websites have helpful information about what to do if you find yourself a victim of identity theft.

Read more in Parts 2 & 3

In Part 2 we present you with sixteen different measures that you can take to reduce the problems that might occur if you lose some or all of your vital documents, and suggest steps that will make it quicker and easier for you to recover from such a situation.

In Part 3 we suggest easy steps you can take to reduce the harm that might occur if someone does get your vital documents and ID. By following these strategies, there is less likelihood of you suffering ID or any other type of theft.

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Originally published 9 May 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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