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I was in the women’s locker room at my gym, getting ready for work, when the woman from the front desk rushed in.  “Are you Jeannette Jones?” she asked breathlessly, “There’s a police officer out front to see you.”  I grabbed my gym bag and rushed out after her.  My first thought was our son had been seriously hurt in an accident.

As I turned the corner to the lobby, I saw my husband talking to the officer, but he looked disappointed, not frantic, so I relaxed a little.  “Both our cars were broken into.  They took my briefcase, your purse, our cell phones, and they broke out a window in each of our cars,” he said.  Relief washed over me, followed by the realization that we had lots of work to do.  As soon as the officer took the information he needed from me, I rushed to the office to get started.  As I drove down I-71 with the shattered glass from the back-passenger window blowing into the car, I went through a mental checklist.

The most critical thing to do when your credit or identification has been stolen is to act quickly to minimize the damage.  Once you contact your credit card company to let them know your card has been stolen, federal laws says you are not responsible for any unauthorized charges after that time.  I had a file for each of my credit cards, so I had my card numbers, but I didn’t have the correct phone numbers for their customer service lines, so it took me a little longer to look them up on line.  Credit companies recommend people take a picture of the contents of their wallet, including both sides of their credit cards, so they know exactly what they’re carrying and have the companies’ contact information readily available, so I’ll be doing that now.

It’s important that you report your cards as stolen, instead of just cancelling them.  If you cancel your cards you may negatively impact your credit score, which could cause you even more problems.  Ask that the cards be replaced, so you can maintain the same credit limits, interest terms, and benefits – such as miles or cash-back rewards.

If you are using your credit cards to auto-pay specific bills, you need to contact them and change the billing information as soon as you receive your new card.  Having bills go past-due isn’t going to help your stress level or your credit score.

Next, I contacted the three credit reporting companies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.  You can place a free fraud alert on your credit to make it harder for someone to open an account in your name.  This fraud alert stays on your account for 90 days, and also allows you to order a free copy of your credit report from each of the three companies, regardless of whether or not you have already used your free annual credit report for the year.

Because they had my Ohio driver’s license in addition to my credit cards,  I decided to take the extra step and pay $5.00 to each of the reporting companies to place a credit freeze on my file.   A freeze restricts access to your credit, making it difficult for someone to open credit in your name.

I was not carrying a checkbook, ATM card, debit card or other bank account information, but I did contact my bank branch to let them know about the theft and get their recommendations.  If my bank information had been stolen, I would have put a stop payment on the stolen checks and opened a new checking account.  I would have kept my old account open only long enough for the legitimate outstanding checks to clear.

I replaced my Ohio driver’s license quickly, using my passport for the required photo I.D.  I only had to sign a statement that my license was stolen, and pay to replace it.  I also obtained a copy of the police report from the Montgomery Police Department.  Some fees for extended credit alerts are waived when you provide a copy of the police report, and it may help if any other credit issues arise in the future.

A few other suggestions:

  • Don’t carry credit cards in your wallet that you rarely use. I have 4 primary cards I use for either work or personal use, but I was carrying 3 additional cards I use only when the store is offering special deals for cardholders.  This only added to the list of cards I had to cancel.  It’s better to keep them locked up at home and only take them with you when you plan to use them.
  • You shouldn’t carry your Social Security card with you, but some medical insurance cards use your Social Security number as your I.D., so if it or your Social Security card are stolen, you need to take the following extra steps:

The police explained the fitness center was a perfect place for a smash and grab robbery, because thieves know people keep briefcases and purses in their cars while they work out.  We were warned about keeping valuables in our lockers due to break-ins, so I had started keeping my purse in the back seat of my car, under my seat.  I thought it was a safe alternative, but they’re getting smarter.

Day care centers, coffee shops, gas stations, and other places where people leave valuables – sometimes for only a few minutes while they run inside to retrieve kids or coffee – are also targets.   We feel safe in familiar places, so we become complacent.

Our fitness center is also close to a wooded area along the freeway, and unfortunately, not well lit in the area where I parked.  It was easy to break my window and stay in the shadows.  When I went back and looked closely, I realized the cameras covering the parking lot are not pointed at the area where we parked.  This morning, another car was broken into in the same area.  Be sure to pay attention to where you park, and how vulnerable you might be to undetected theft.

Learn from my mistakes, and know that even if you prepare and are cautious, bad things may happen that you can’t control.  That’s life.  I’ll continue to monitor our credit reports every 4 months, just like we tell our clients to do, but now it’s even more important.  And wherever I go,  I’m parking in the middle of the parking lot under the lights!