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Living abroad and getting your wallet stolen- a veterans tale

If you travel a lot, live abroad, or study abroad, chances are that someday you’re going to lose something important or something important will get stolen. I’ve had both: I was confronted by a group of young men in a bus in Germany during which my wallet curiously went missing. On a recent trip to Toronto  which was a feat in and of itself, see previous post), my flight was delayed by almost three hours, we changed planes twice, I waited in line for almost two hours atScreen Shot 2014-04-15 at 6.38.58 PM immigration, my luggage was lost, and somehow during the chaos my wallet went missing. Although in both instances I had taken a number of precautions to avoid these situations, you can be the most organized and cautious person in the world and something like this can still happen to you. I’ll admit it, I got a little lazy with my wallet and other belongings. I’m used to backpacking in the Middle East or Central America where I thoroughly prepare my belongings and go through a checklist to make sure everything is in its proper place. Going to Canada for a conference, I think I took security less seriously than I typically do. Serves me right. Between having my wallet stolen while living abroad (including my passport), and having my wallet lost while on a short international trip, I’ve learned a few lessons.

Before you travel

Most of this stuff is common sense, but it helps to remind ourselves:

  1. Make a travel checklist with all the following on the list and keep it somewhere accessible.  Although I have a travel checklist that I continually update and edit in Evernote, I didn’t use it for my trip to Canada because I got lackadaisical.  Had I done so, I might have remembered to empty out my wallet of unnecessary cards and saved myself some headache.
  2. Put a travel alert on your credit and debit cards if you plan to use them abroad.
  3. Only bring the cards you know you will use. Rather than simply throwing your wallet into your carry-on as is, take the time to empty it of any unnecessary cards you won’t use (like a local library card) or can’t be replaced (like that spa punch card that is only one massage away from a free treatment–yeah, I lost that too). Empty your wallet of excessive amounts of cash (you will want some but not a lot until you get to an ATM in your destination country).
  4. Put a stash of emergency cash or credit cards or both somewhere other than your wallet. This could be in a special travel wallet (see number 10).  I normally take the time to do this before I travel but I didn’t do it before going to Canada. When I discovered my wallet was missing, I had nothing. Literally nothing. No cash, no ATM card, no credit card. No way to even pay for the subway to get out of the airport.
  5. Keep your credit and debit card information, as well as your ID cards somewhere other than your wallet. I didn’t have this the first time my wallet was stolen, and I had a hard time remembering everything that was inside.  Now I keep a copy of my cards in an encrypted file on a USB stick I carry with me.  I like this solution because I don’t have to carry physical pieces of paper with me which I think are more easily lost–and someone can  Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.35.23 PMuse to steal your identity.  I have seen several travel bloggers suggest uploading documents to a cloud services like Dropbox or Evernote so your documents are available even without a computer and on all your devices.  This can be convenient but personally I don’t trust my sensitive documents on a corporate server–although I use a variety of cloud solutions, I’m not always clear what rights these companies retain over my data stored on their servers. Furthermore, many document syncing services have been hacked and compromised.  I prefer to keep my most important documents local.  If you do this, it is important to secure a digital copy of your wallet, in case you lose the USB stick, or the computer, or wherever you’re storing the file.  I use TruCrypt, free software that creates encrypted containers to keep sensitive information.  You can even use this software to create hidden containers that only you can see (they call this plausible deniability).  When I lost my wallet in Canada, I pulled up this file and I had a complete picture of what I had in my wallet when it was lost, as well as account numbers, card numbers, phone numbers, etc. This made it a little easier to immediately call and cancel the cards, and was also very helpful in filing a police report.
  6. Get a credit or debit card with a bank that has a really good program for lost or stolen wallet situations, especially designed for travelers or expats and always travel with that card. I learned this the hard way when I lost my wallet the first time. I was living abroad in Germany but most of my cards were from the States. My banks wanted to charge me $20+ per card to Fedex my new cards to me from the US. The phone number they provided ended up being just an automatic touchtone phone system where you couldn’t actually talk to a person. They didn’t make it clear at all that not only did I need to call to cancel my current card, I also had to make an additional call to a separate number to request a new one.  Because I didn’t need my American cards urgently since I had a bank account in Germany, I opted to have them send my replacement cards to my parents’ house in the US rather than paying to have them FedEx’ed.  I went to my German bank in person to get a new ATM card, and I survived on cash until I visited my parents for the holidays and picked up my new cards. By contrast, when I lost my wallet in Canada, I had absolutely no money to pay for anything.  But because I had a credit card that was supposed to provide extra help and protections for these situations, things worked out rather smoothly.  I called the lost wallet hotline, I talked to a very friendly person who immediately cancelled the card, had a new card overnight’ed to me in Canada, and arranged for a money wire via Western Union, all at no charge to me.  The charge to wire money internationally is normally quite hefty.  They also provided free credit monitoring for six months following the incident and a free copy of my credit report. They will also refund the fee I will have to pay to get the security freeze lifted from my credit report. Finally, they offer lost luggage insurance which I used to buy some essentials for the 36 hours or so I had to go without any clothes until the airline found my luggage and delivered it to my hotel.  All my other cards didn’t offer nearly the same level of service. Within minutes of my call, I already had cash in my hand, and only a day later, I had another credit card, both of which got me through my short trip to Canada. Meanwhile, with one of my other banks, I had to wait for more than three weeks to get a new debit card.  There are tons of identity fraud monitoring services out there by now, and I imagine these companies provide even better services in the case of a lost wallet.  But you have to pay extra for these services; with my credit card the only fee I’m paying them is a rather reasonable annual fee.
  7. Keep your passport and your drivers license in separate places. Again, this is another lesson from my fist incident. I had all of my ID cards in my wallet, which I normally wouldn’t do but due to a recent altercation with a transport ticket checker who threatened to fine me for showing him my American drivers license as proof of ID rather than my passport, I was carrying my passport that day. If you’re traveling or living in a country in which you are supposed to carry your passport with you at all times, I recommend keeping a local form of ID (drivers license, student ID) along with a pixelated copy of your passport photo page. Blur the passport number, and date of birth. A copy of your passport will satisfy local authorities that you are who you say you are, or at least buy you some time to go get your real passport at home and show them.  If your wallet gets lost with a copy of your passport, thieves can ‘t easily steal your identity if they can’t see the passport number and your date of birth.  Keep an unpixelated copy of it in an encrypted file on your computer that you can easily print if you need to go to the embassy and get a new passport.  Of course, don’t leave your passport in a hotel or hostel room that isn’t secure. Put your passport in hotel safe or in a small secret locked compartment in your bag. If you don’t feel comfortable, it is probably safer on your person rather than at home. When living abroad you don’t need to be quite as vigilant with your passport assuming you live in a relatively safe building, but still keep it in a safe and secret place.
  8. Keep phone numbers and addresses of emergency contacts both in your destination country as well as back home somewhere safe as well, preferably in a different place than your walletScreen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.40.24 PM.  You may need someone back home to wire you money, or send copies of your birth certificate if you need to apply for a new passport.
  9. I know it goes without saying, but keep your wallet in a safe place in a backpack or bag while traveling. Many good backpacks have special wallet pockets that are hidden but are still easy to get to. Additionally, don’t keep any passwords or PIN numbers in your wallet.  Rather, store your passwords and PIN numbers in an encrypted file on a USB stick or your computer, or use a password management system like LastPass.  That way, you only need to remember one master password to de-encrypt that file.
  10. Even if you’re only traveling for a short period of time, invest in a special travel wallet, such as the kind that hangs around your neck and sits close to your chest underneath your clothing rather than one that goes into a bag or in a jeans pocket.  These are much more difficult to steal or lose.  Keep your most important documents and cards there, and keep only one credit card and a small amount of cash in your normal wallet for small everyday purchases.  Switch things out between the two wallets everyday before you leave your hotel room.  If you’re living abroad, this is less a concern but I would still encourage you to only go out with what you absolutely need in your wallet.
  11. Keep an emergency calling card somewhere other than your wallet.  If you’re traveling you may not have a convenient or cheap way to call the US to cancel your cards. If you have a Skypeout or other VOIP subscription, you can call 1-800 numbers for free. If you need to use a landline in a hotel for example, you can call collect using the number on the back of the credit card.  But, if you find yourself needing to use a payphone for lack of any other option, a calling card can save money on all the calls you’ll be making back to the US.  Although it normally wouldn’t be a problem for an American to use her cell phone in Toronto without incurring too many extra charges, my particular (very VERY cheap) American SIM card did not work in Canada.  I couldn’t call to cancel my cards until I got to the hotel and used WiFi to call through Skype.
  12. NEVER EVER keep your Social Security card in your wallet, even if you never travel.  This is the one mistake I’ve never made.  If someone has your SSN, in addition to your credit cards or your passport, they can easily do you harm before you’ve even noticed your wallet is gone.  Just memorize your Social Security Number and leave the card in a safe place at home, or better in a safe deposit box.
  13. Don’t carry your checkbook with you either, especially if you’re leaving the country.  I honestly don’t know why we Americans continue to use this antiquated and highly unsafe payment method, but your checks have your account number and routing number written directly on them!  You can’t write checks abroad anyway, so just leave these at home.  If you’re moving abroad for an extended period of time, either leave your checkbook in the hands of a trusted individual or just shred the checks.  You can order a new checkbook if/when you move back.Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.46.06 PM
  14. Keep an updated list of payments that are automatically charged to your credit cardsThis way, if your wallet is stolen, you can immediately inform all of the companies that auto-charge your card, and replace that information with the new card number.  I forgot about this the first time my wallet was stolen, and an important subscription service (Skype!) was interrupted.
  15. Get a credit card that uses encrypted chip technology.  This isn’t directly related to a stolen wallet, but it does help protect your financial information from being stolen.  While it isn’t common yet in the US, many countries abroad (even Canada, as I discovered), use chip credit cards rather than “swipe” credit cards.  Swipe cards are vulnerable because thieves can put skimming devices on the swipes and get your account information.  Ask your credit card company if they offer chip cards and get one before your next international trip.
  16. Keep some fake family pictures in your wallet.  I’ve never done this but maybe I’ll start.  Keeping fake family photos in your wallet might convince anyone that finds your wallet to return it to you.  I suggest fake photos because, call me paranoid, I don’t want pictures of my actual family in the hands of a thief, especially if they have my address from my drivers license.


After your wallet is lost or stolen

  1. Try to figure you where you lost your wallet or where it might have been stolen.  If you lost it in a cab, you can call the company and see if they found it.  According to a new law, you are only liable for $50 worth of unauthorized charges that take place before you cancel the card.  Theoretically, this means you can wait and see if your wallet turns up before you begin cancelling everything, and the most you can lose on your credit cards are $50 per card (this doesn’t apply to debit cards).  If you cancel your cards and your wallet is miraculously returned, you can still use your drivers license and cash if they are still there, but none of your credit/debit cards will be useful.  In fact, if you try to use a cancelled credit card, you might be flagged for fraud.
  2. If you’re sure your wallet is lost or stolen and you haven’t simply misplaced it, call your credit, debit, and ATM card companies and cancel the cards.  This is both a blessing and a curse because while no one can use the cards, neither can you until you get the replacements.  This means that unless you have a backup card, you’ll have to rely exclusively on cash in the meantime.  Make sure that in addition to cancelling the cards, you also request to have new ones sent.  Make sure that the new ones will be repinned for you.  If you only took one or two of the most important cards with you while traveling, cancelling the cards won’t take very long to complete.  If you have a backup card that wasn’t stolen, you can use that card for cash or credit purchases until you get home.  If you don’t have a backup card, ask if they can send you a new card abroad and how much that will cost.  Ask about emergency cash services and how much that costs as well.
  3. File a police report and retain a copy of the report.  Even if you lost your wallet, get a police report.  This can be especially helpful when trying to replace cards or make claims with an insurance agency, and a police report is required when applying for a replacement passport.
  4. If you have no photo identification, this can be a serious situation if you’re abroad and you will be traveling back to the US in a few days, which is why having copies of your ID cards is helpful at the very least.  If you need a replacement passport, you’ll need to contact the nearest Embassy or Consulate immediatelyScreen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.56.57 PM.  Bring whatever you have that can help prove your identity such as photocopies of IDs and credit cards, student IDs, copy of a birth certificate, and the phone numbers of people who can vouch for your identity.  I provide more detailed information on how to get a new passport in my book.
    • If you’re traveling soon, the Embassy may grant you a temporary passport to travel back to the US.
    • You can pay an extra fee to have your new passport expedited.
    • If you’re living abroad and can get a hold of some sort of ID such as a student ID, getting a replacement passport is not as urgent unless you need to leave the country.
  5. Call the major credit reporting bureaus and put a freeze on your account, which prevents anyone from opening up a new line of credit in your name, and alerts you to any attempt to do so.  This also makes it difficult and lengthy for YOU to get a new line of credit, but you can temporarily lift the freeze, for a fee (unless your credit card will reimburse you, like mine).
  6. If you have travel insurance, call your insurance company and ask about the proper procedures for filing a claim.
  7. Change your passwords and PIN numbers as soon as possible after using your wallet.  New cards should hopefully come re-pinned.  I use LastPass to manage my passwords and for the most part, it works very well. However, in this case it worked too well because my security settings prevented me from logging into my account from any other country except the US, Germany and Spain. At least I knew that if my own password management system was preventing me from getting access to my accounts, it was doing the same to someone else in Canada.  I was able to change my passwords as soon I got back to the US.
  8. Get a new driver’s license.  This can only be done once you’re back in the US.  When my wallet was stolen in Germany, I didn’t have a drivers license for several months until I came home to visit my parents.  You have to physically go to the DMV, get a new picture taken, and pay for a new one.  You also submit the police report so the police can flag your old license if anyone tries to use it.  I was told that I could drive temporarily with my passport on me in case I got pulled over, but this policy probably varies by state.  I got a temporary drivers license, and my permanent one arrived about 10 days later.
  9. Start cancelling and replacing any other cards you lost such as library cards, membership cards, rewards cards, health insurance cards, etc.  If you had a digital copy of all your wallet’s contents, you at least know what you have to replace.  If you emptied your wallet before traveling, this is a lot easier.
  10. Think about changing the locks If you lost your wallet close to the address on your license, this may increase the chances that it will be returned but it might also encourage a particularly bold thief to steal from your home.  Think about changing the locks.

Technology to Consider

I don’t have any experience with these things, but maybe someday I’ll give them a try, considering how often I seem to misplace my wallet.  There are several companies the make small Bluetooth-enabled chips you can put in your wallet (or keychain, or computer, or whatever).  You pair the chip with an app on your smartphone, and it alerts you if the chip gets out of range from your phone.  Some have more advanced technology that give you Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 1.06.58 PMGPS coordinates of where the chip is located.  It seems like a good idea in theory, but I don’t think there is anything that is stopping a thief from removing a chip and discarding it.  I don’t know if I really want my phone ringing every time my wallet is faraway from my iPhone, because there are lots of occasions where I don’t take both with me.

I’m intrigued by mobile wallet applications that would allow you to keep everything in your wallet on a smartphone, with the ability to self-destruct the information if the smartphone is lost or stolen.  Of course, you’d still need a backup option if your phone goes missing, and it would have to be secure from hackers.  Ideally it would also be able to carry digital versions of your driver’s license, health insurance and other important cards.  A recent article in MacWorld Magazine is specifically encouraging Apple to move forward with more innovative mobile wallet technology…one that would actually be safer than credit cards and would eventually replace physical cards all together.  I love this idea, but unfortunately we’re not there yet.

The best thing to avoid these sorts of messes that is available today are biometric wallets that require a fingerprint to open.  I’m told there are some that display a central contact number in case it is lost (since the person who found it can’t get inside to find your address or name).  But these are extremely expensive.

For now, I’ll stick to my strategy of making a digital copy of my wallet and encrypting the file.  But going through this experience twice has made me consider what I would do if I lost something with a ton of valuable, personal information; namely, my phone, computer or tablet.  Although thankfully this has never happened to me, I have been taking extra precautions lately to keep those items safe.


The trip wasn't a total bust...I managed to find my way to Niagara Falls.

The trip wasn’t a total bust…I managed to find my way to Niagara Falls.


Have you tried one of the lost wallet applications, biometric wallet, or bluetooth trackers?  How do they work?  Do you have any other advice for someone who has lost their wallet while either traveling or living overseas?  Horror stories?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.