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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Take These Out of Your Wallet

What do you need to carry in your purse or wallet these days? Very little, and cleaning it out will reduce the likelihood of theft. 

Life has gotten complicated. Instead of carrying a little cash and a driver’s license, many of us have wallets stuffed with credit cards, debit cards, personal ID cards, insurance cards, value club cards… the list is never-ending! But should we really be lugging around all that personal information? 

The short answer is no. Most people don’t need anything more than a driver’s license or identification card and one credit card or our old friend, greenbacks. Tucking in much more than that can leave you vulnerable to identity theft or outright financial thievery.

When to Use a Debit Card Instead of a Credit Card

Many of us will never need to use a debit card, or only in certain situations. Unlike a credit card, which loans you money that you have to pay back later, a debit card takes money out of your account at the time of purchase. When might you need to use one?

If you need to get cash fast, you can use a debit card to pull money from an account. If you are overseas, use it from a bank that won’t charge an overseas transaction fee. Here in the States, make sure the ATM is in your network or that your institution allows some free uses of out-of-network ATMs. You can also use your debit card at your bank to get cash.

Some local retailers and trades people may charge a transaction fee for purchases. Avoid paying extra by using a debit card instead of a credit card.

If you struggle to pay off your credit card every month, you’ll be better off foregoing rewards and avoiding steep interest fees by using a debit card instead. It’s crazy to get 2% cash back when you are paying 20% in fees to carry a balance.

The more cards that are in your wallet, the more damage a thief can do quickly, says Adam Levin, author of Swiped and founder of risk services company CyberScout. We’ll start with a list of what experts say you should leave at home.

Here is what should NOT be in your wallet:
  • Social Security Card. “Social Security cards and the number itself are one of the most valuable pieces of information in the hands of a thief,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. “With it, they can easily file taxes on your behalf, open a line of credit in your name, receive medical attention, or even commit crimes using your information.”
  • Passport. If you are not in the process of traveling abroad, your passport should stay in a safe or other secure place. Even when you travel, lock the original away in a hotel safe and carry a copy. Passports can be used by thieves to get a new Social Security card, open bank accounts and travel in your name.
  • Birth Certificate. Leave it at home, or criminals could impersonate you at banks or the Social Security office and more. 
  • Spare House Key. It’s too easy for thieves to find your name and address, then visit with the key you’ve so kindly provided. Leave a key with a friend or neighbor instead.
  • List of Passwords. Leave it at home, or in a safe deposit box or password manager.
  • Blank Checks. Thieves can copy your checks and write them all over town, or use your account number to make electronic withdrawals. 
  • Excessive Cash. If your purse or wallet gets stolen, the cash is gone for good. And it’s too easy to pay with a $100 bill instead of $10 when you are rushed. Finally, it’s always possible to pull out a roll of bills and drop a few without noticing.
  • Gift Cards. They’re just like cash; when they’re gone, there’s no way to get them back.
  • Membership Cards. Don’t help thieves get into Costco or your favorite gym.
  • Medicare Card. Instead of having all your information available, Levin recommends carrying a copy of your Medicare cards with the number of an emergency contact written on the back.
  • Receipts. Don’t get in the habit of keeping them stuffed in your purse; together, they help thieves figure out your shopping patterns. A phisher could pose as your favorite restaurant manager. “Why have a data point that, if someone could get their hands on that, would enable them to know just one more piece of the puzzle?” says Levin. “If I don’t need it, don’t throw it away—shred it.”

What To Do Instead

If you have a smartphone, having needed cards at your fingertips is easy. Your notes app will store gym, Social Security, and cost club membership cards, as well as birth certificates, death certificates and so much more. All you need to do is take a picture of the card or document. Scanning the barcode off your phone will work just as well as using the card itself at gyms, warehouses, and other venues. It’s simple to attach a document photo to emails or when requesting insurance benefits. 

The wallet app on your phone provides a place to store credit cards that is protected from thieves. Digital wallets replace your card number with one that is randomized, and your card information is never visible. “No one can steal your actual card number from that device if anyone were to get in,” reports Jordan Carr, program director at nonprofit Tthe Oasis Institute, which runs tech classes for older adults. Besides, wallets on Apple, Google, and Samsung devices all require a passcode, fingerprint scan or facial recognition to open.

Digital wallets are easy to set up and use. They work everywhere that you can use contactless payment, where you tap instead of inserting or swiping your card. If you get to checkout and are unsure how to proceed, just pull up the card you want to use in your phone’s wallet and ask the cashier for help. 

There are still places where there is nowhere to tap your card, such as many gas stations. You can use your main credit card for these situations, perhaps a cash back card. The rest of the time, bring up the card you want to use on your smartphone for maximum point rewards. 

So, thwart thieves by paring down what you’re carrying in your purse or wallet. Hopefully, it will never get stolen. But if it does, you only have a call or two to make to put a freeze on your main card and contact the motor vehicles office. It’s no fun, but it’s so much better than realizing that your list of passwords was in there along with eight credit cards and your Social Security number!


This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional financial advice from a qualified financial advisor.