Reporting Aside

February 24, 2013

Keep those wallets and pocketbooks secure

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

A friend’s wallet was stolen recently.

This got me thinking about what we should and should not keep in our wallets or purses and what we should do if they are stolen.

I tossed the question to a couple of colleagues, which launched a discussion about what we have in our wallets and why.

I learned that I haul around a lot more information about myself than I need to.

Seeking advice on the subject, I called Deputy Chief Charles Rumsey, of the Waterville police, who had plenty of good tips for safeguarding personal information and avoiding theft in the first place.

He suggested we maintain a list of what we have in our wallets — credit cards, drivers’ license, debit cards and the like — along with appropriate phone numbers to call if they are stolen.

As soon as we know our wallet has been stolen, we should call those numbers immediately so the cards can be canceled and replaced.

Thieves are clever and typically use the cards right away because they know the owners will try to cancel them, according to Rumsey.

He was adamant that we never keep Social Security cards in our wallets. A thief uses name, date of birth, address and Social Security number to steal another’s identify.

“That (Social Security card) is really something we encourage people not to have with them,” he said. “Another thing we see pretty commonly is people carrying debit cards and PIN numbers in wallets or purses because they have a hard time remembering the numbers. It immediately gives somebody access to wipe out their account.”

Hang on, literally, to your wallet or purse, he said.

How often do we see women scouring supermarket shelves while their pocketbooks lie open and vulnerable in the carts?

I am horrified every time I see this, knowing how easy it is for a thief to walk away with their identities, not to mention their hard-earned cash.

Thefts occur all the time in cities such as Waterville, Portland and Bangor, where there are lots of services and places to shop.

“It’s a very common type of call for us,” Rumsey said.

He suggests we be aware of what we are doing at every juncture. If we go to the ATM, for instance, we should be aware of what is going on around us and where someone could approach and snatch our cash.

“We call it ‘situational awareness,’ and that’s really something that’s important for everybody,” he said.

We also should take care not to let others get too close behind us to see our personal identification numbers or other information, according to Rumsey.

The Waterville area a while ago had a spate of smash-and-grab thefts in which car windows were smashed and pocketbooks stolen that were in plain sight.

Rumsey recommends valuables not be kept in vehicles, but if they must be, they should be covered.

So if we should not carry Social Security cards and other such information in our pocketbooks, where do we keep them?

“They should be left secure in people’s homes, in a place difficult to find or access,” Rumsey says. “Just keep them at home and as safe as possible.”

As those of us who have had our wallets stolen know, it is not a fun experience.

Mine wasn’t as bad as some. My little red wallet was stolen in Massachusetts when I was a teenager visiting a friend at a private school.

It contained only a $5 bill, but I still remember the incident as if it were yesterday.

I wondered aloud to Rumsey how common it is for people to get the contents of their stolen wallets back. Not very, he said.

“Most of the time we don’t recover the stolen purses. They’re going to be rifled through and thrown in a trash can or a Dumpster.”

In other words, there’s no turning back. Heeding some simple advice now can prevent a lot of irritation later.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at acalder@centralmaine.com

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