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TAKE STEPS NOW TO MITIGATE EFFECTS OF A LOST WALLET

It's probably a consumer's worst nightmare: You reach for your wallet or purse and it has vanished.

By the time you've retraced your steps to figure out where you might have left it, or realized you are the victim of a pickpocket or other theft, your heart is pounding and your head is swimming.

Then, at the height of your panic, you must force yourself to provide an inventory of how much cash you were carrying along with a laundry list of credit card, automated teller machine and debit card numbers.

Needless to say, losing a wallet or pocketbook is traumatic. But it can go a little smoother if you take some preventive measures.

With the real threat that a thief has the ability to steal your identity along with the financial power of your cash and cards, the best strategy is to avoid carrying more fiscal instruments and personal documents and information than is absolutely necessary, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Are there a couple of dormant credit cards tucked in the back of your wallet gathering dust? The FDIC suggests not only leaving them home, but canceling them altogether if you never use them.

Experts recommend that you not carry around bank account numbers, birth certificates, passports or even your Social Security card. All of these items are convenient tools for identity snatchers.

Avoid carrying more blank checks than you need. Not only can they be forged and cashed, but crooks also are able to use the preprinted information (your address, telephone number and bank account number) to apply for additional credit cards and loans.

Consumers who also list their driver's license and Social Security numbers on their checks make it even easier for bad guys to steal your identity, so avoid helping them out.

And never, never, ever carry anything in your wallet that lists the personal identification numbers that turn your bank cards into instant cash sources. If you have a tough time remembering your PINs, contact the bank to get a number you can recall without a cheat sheet.

Another way to prepare for the worst is to create a manifest of all your account numbers and issuer phone numbers, so you don't have to race around recreating the contents of your wallet or purse.

One way to create a record is to photocopy each of your credit, ATM and debit cards. Another method is to simply grab a sheet of paper and make a list of all your cards, along with the names, addresses and phone numbers of the issuers.

It's a good idea to also jot down numbers for the major credit bureaus. Here are toll-free numbers for the big three: Experian (formerly TRW), 800-682-7654; TransUnion, 800-916-8800, and Equifax, 800-685-1111.

Deirdre Foley, of the FDIC's Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs, warns that under no circumstances should you carry this list in your pocketbook.

"Keep these numbers in safekeeping or else they can become tools for someone with criminal intent," Ms. Foley said.

Ideally, this master list of accounts and numbers should be stored in a home safe or other secure place where you can gain access to it even on weekends. If you want to store it in a computer file or disk, make sure it is filed under a name that can't be readily identified if someone breaks into your home or office.

You might want to keep a second copy in a safe deposit box.

When going on vacation, carry a list of the toll-free numbers for your credit card issuers, minus the account numbers. Ken Baebel, also the the FDIC's staff, said that list can be a lifesaver when you are away from home.

"If you lose your wallet while you're away from home, having those phone numbers will help you quickly report the problem and get replacement cash or cards," Baebel said.

Why not not list the account numbers? Gene Seitz, an FDIC fraud investigator, said the numbers alone are almost as good as stealing the card.

"The card numbers are as valuable, if not more valuable, as the cards," Seitz said. "If someone steals your wallet, you'll probably notice that right away, but if someone steals a list of numbers from your suitcase, by the time you notice, they are probably already using your cards."

Along the same lines, don't leave a paper trail from your card usage. Don't leave the paper receipt at the cash machine, don't leave credit purchase receipts sitting in your car or purse. Either file them safely away or tear them up for safe disposal.

Be careful when throwing away those unwanted credit card solicitations that seem to land daily in your mailbox. Even though you aren't interested, the crooks that raid your garbage at the curb probably will be. Again, shred or tear up thoroughly.

A good way to stay on top of your credit safety is to take time each month to read through the charges on your accounts and consider an annual review of your credit bureau report to spot any unauthorized accounts.

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