Limbo of the Lost

| April 11, 2005

When faced with a misplaced or stolen wallet, a quick response is everything.

It’s a story we’ve all heard in one form or another.

“I went to my footlocker and found the wallet and some other items were missing,” says TJ Graf of Phoenix, Ariz. “The first thing I did was notify security. The first thing after that, I notified the banks via the Internet.”

“It was extremely easy,” Graf says. “I went to their website and clicked on customer service.”

Graf’s situation is probably unique because he drives in Iraq for KBR Construction, a division of Haliburton. But his rapid response to the theft of his wallet saved him from financial loss and the Federal Trade Commission’s top-ranked fraud-related complaint: identity theft. “They sent new cards Federal Express to Iraq,” he says. “I received them in seven days, which isn’t bad for a war zone.” And the thief, says Graf, was a co-worker who was “caught, fired and sent back to the states.”

But Graf was lucky. For truckers, a lost or stolen wallet is a crisis that can be expensinve and cause headaches.

“I remember the time I left my company credit card at a fuel desk,” says Smith Motor Express company driver Stephen Meyer of Lake City, Fla. “It was a truckstop on I-40 in New Mexico. They forgot to give it back, and I forgot to ask for it.”

The problem was compounded because he was far away by the time he noticed the card was gone. “They wouldn’t mail it,” he says. “They said somebody with a picture ID would have to come and pick it up.” Meyer says his employer just cancelled the card. “It was a pain because I had to get advances for fuel until I got home and got the new card.”

Another issue for truckers is that the places they frequent – truckstops, borders and rest areas – are favorite haunts for any manner of career criminal vagabonds: expert thieves who know how and what to steal, and how to put the stolen goods to maximum destructive use.

Have a plan
But the right response can minimize or eliminate the damage.

Smart drivers should plan a thorough, decisive course of action to handle a lost or stolen wallet. The plan should cover all the bases, primarily credit or debit cards, checkbooks, CDLs and Social Security numbers. The planned response is activated immediately after the missing wallet is determined irretrievable.

Step one is to realize the worst could happen, but there’s a chance it has not. Act quickly, but don’t panic. Stories of truckers who’ve lost their wallets and then found them or had them returned, all contents intact, are not uncommon.

“Yep, I lost my wallet once,” Meyer says. He tells the story of how he’d left his wallet on the counter of the TA Truck Stop outside of Portland, Ore., and didn’t realize it was missing until noon the next day. Fortunately, he had a couple of days off and was staying in town. “I immediately got dressed and went looking, with no luck,” he says. He asked at the fuel desk and talked with the truckstop manager, all for naught.

“I had to make a couple of phone calls because my credit cards and CDL were in there, and the company fuel card, too,” Meyer says. “Then I had to make a police report.” He says when the police showed up, he was paged. “Lo and behold, the manager was standing there with my wallet in his hand.” He says a truckstop worker had found the wallet the previous evening and turned it in, but it was put in the wrong place. “No one knew it was there until the manager looked around and found it.”

Meyer says he couldn’t thank the manager enough, and the experience taught him a valuable lesson. “Not everyone is a thief, and not everyone is dishonest,” he says.

If possible, retrace your steps. Think of where you last saw the wallet or where it was most likely lost or stolen, and contact that place ASAP. If you cannot get an immediate confirmation that your wallet and all its contents have been found and are safe, assume your wallet is in the wrong hands and start making the other calls. Speed is important. Maybe your wallet is sitting somewhere, and the person you notify can find it before anybody else. And if the wallet is stolen, the thief might hurry to make purchases or withdrawals with the stolen cards.

Protect your identity
A stolen wallet isn’t just inconvenient. Identity theft has various definitions, but it’s basically thieves and scam artists masquerading as their victims to perform a variety of criminal activities. But for truckers it’s especially bad, because they’re often long gone from the scene of the crime or loss before they even know it happened. When they find out, they often must handle the situation from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

By one account, 9.3 million Americans were victims of identity theft last year, and these crimes cost consumers and businesses $52 billion. In recent scandals, villains used the Internet to steal data from companies that sell private information about people. However, most identity theft starts the old-fashioned way – lost or stolen wallets, checkbooks and mail, or a betraying friend.

“I was the victim of identity theft once years ago, and to this day it sometimes comes back to haunt me,” says Bynum Trucking company driver Stephanie Stills of North Texas. “Someone I knew and had actually helped out once stole my wallet, checkbook, driver’s license, credit cards, employee ID, a bunch of jewelry, the whole nine yards,” she says. “She wasted no time writing bad checks, taking cash advances on my credit cards and committing crimes using my identity.”

The Internet actually limits the damage identity thieves can cause, according to the Better Business Bureau. By monitoring their checking and credit accounts online, people can quickly spot irregularities and report them right away.

This can be especially important for owner-operators. Businesses are expected to maintain a higher level of security. For example, it’s more likely that a business will be held liable for written checks, even if they’re stolen. The Internet can help owner-operators with company checkbooks keep a closer eye on their accounts.

Graf believes his decision to use the Internet instead of the phone helped limit the potential damage from the theft of his wallet. Phone lines often have long recordings and on-hold times. Graf says when he got to the bank’s website, “they gave me a choice for either online or phone communication. I chose online because it was faster than calling.” Graf also gives the bank and credit company personnel high marks for limiting the damage. “They were great,” he says. “They went above and beyond the call of duty.”

He also found it easy using the Internet to get a replacement CDL from Arizona. “I just went to the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles website,” he says. Graf says he had no problem navigating through the website to the screen for replacing a license. “I just requested a replacement,” he says. “They asked for $4. I paid it with the new debit card, and they mailed a new CDL to my address in the states.”

But the thief who stole Stills’ identity struck fast and hard. Even though Stills called police and made a report, she discovered the depth of her problem when she applied for a job. “I was politely informed I had a police record and there was a warrant out for my arrest,” she says.

From there her experience became a nightmare. The police in her small hometown knew her, “and the description of me and the thief didn’t match,” she says. “But they still recommended I go down to the courthouse and have my record verified.” Stills waited all day before finally seeing the judge. “I explained my situation, and the Superior Court issued me a document stating that I had been the victim of identity theft,” she says. “The known thief had committed crimes in my name, issued fraudulent bank drafts, and basically tried to and just about became me.”

“To this day I carry that court document with me, stating I’m not the criminal,” Stills says. “I’m just the person who got taken advantage of.”


What to Do When Cards Go Missing
Be pro-active. Make a list of phone numbers and Internet addresses for the banks and credit companies you use, for the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state where your CDL is issued and, if necessary, for the nearest local Social Security Administration office. All of these organizations have procedures in place for identity-theft response. Notify them immediately – as soon as you’re aware your wallet is irretrievable – and tell them it’s either lost or stolen. They will freeze your accounts and flag your driving record.

If you know your wallet has been stolen or has fallen into the wrong hands, and the thief has had time to start using your identity, notify your bank(s), creditor(s), the DMV in your home state and the SSA if necessary. Then:

  1. Steel yourself. Know that solving this problem might be difficult and time consuming. Be patient and polite, but persistent. Organize all paperwork. Keep names and phone numbers of everyone you talk to.

  2. File a thoroughly detailed police report. Make readable copies of it for creditors and other agencies requiring proof of the crime. Give them the investigating officer’s phone number, too. Use only certified, return-receipt mail.
  3. Inform at least one of the three major credit bureaus you either are (if you know for sure) or might be an identity-theft victim. Equifax (www.equifax.com or 800-685-1111), Experian (www.experian.com or 888-397-3742) or TransUnion (www.transunion.com or 800-888-4213) are required to share this information with each other.
  4. Get your case number from the bureau you notified. Ask for a credit report. Monitor it carefully, watching for suspicious activity.
  5. Tell the bureau to issue a “fraud alert.” For 90 days, this requires all businesses that lend money or give credit to investigate anyone who opens an account in your name. Thieves know this and will wait for the 90-day period to end, so tell the bureau you also want to file a long-term fraud alert. This lasts seven years; only you can cancel it, and you can do that at any time.
  6. If the thief opens fraudulent accounts in your name, ask the bureau for names and phone numbers of the lenders. Tell the bureau to remove from your credit report all inquiries resulting from fraudulent activity. Even one such inquiry could damage your credit rating.
  7. Also, tell the bureau you wish to dispute all fraud-related entries on your report. Tell the bureau to notify anyone who received your report since the fraudulent activity began that you are disputing these entries. Make sure the credit bureau alerts any employer that has asked for your report.
  8. Find out if your state has a “credit freeze” law. (California has one. Vermont, Louisiana and Texas will this year, and at least 12 other states have introduced such laws.)
  9. Fill out fraud affidavits for creditors. Most of them accept a form provided by the Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/ affidavit.pdf.
  10. Inform your local post office you either are or might be an identity theft victim. Watch for strange bills and especially change-of-address notifications in the mail.
  11. If debt collectors call, get the company and the collector’s name, phone number and address. Tell them on the phone and in writing you are an identity theft victim. Send a copy of the FTC form and of the police report with the letter.
  12. Watch out for other scam artists who offer to “help” you deal with the identity theft.
  13. Enlist the help of caring experts: Identity Theft Resource Center, www.idtheftcenter.org; Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, www.privacyrights.org; Consumers Union, www.consumersunion.org; National Consumer Protection Week, www.consumer.gov/ncpw.

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