By now, most of us know that leaving a Social Security card in a purse or wallet is a recipe for disaster. But what about standard wallet items? A lost wallet is much more than an inconvenience or lost cash.
A friend of mine lost his wallet during his final year at college. Like most students eating lunch at the student union, his packed schedule offered him only a short break for lunch. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t realize his wallet fell out of his pocket after he paid for his meal. No big deal, he thought. He doesn’t carry much cash, and he can cancel his credit and debit card. Unfortunately, a wallet in the wrong hands gives enough personal information to wreak havoc.
Once upon a time, it was commonplace for colleges and universities to use Social Security numbers on their student identification cards. They probably figured students already have a unique identifier, why bother creating a new string of numbers for each student? Well, that was the case at my friend’s university. His campus ID featured his full name and Social Security number (SSN). His driver’s license featured his current address. You can already see where this story is heading.
The wallet was picked up by a fellow student. Rather than contacting my friend or the university, this student decided to use the found item for profit. This is how normal people become identity thieves. Identity theft is a crime of opportunity, and thanks to lax policies there are plenty of opportunities.
It took my friend several months to discover his identity was compromised. He graduated and was applying for a car loan. He was denied because of an extremely low credit score. This took him by complete surprise because he never missed a credit card payment in his life. He thought he had established stellar credit. Well, he had. Unfortunately that identity thief used that stellar credit to rack up credit cards that were never paid off.
The sad thing is this story could have ended with just a lost wallet if only more organizations had better security practices. Thankfully most colleges and universities no longer use SSNs on college IDs. Many states now forbid public schools from using the SSN in lieu of a different number. That doesn’t mean that security practices are perfect. Some campus bookstores require students to write their SSN on personal checks. In several instances, professors posted grades sorted by student SSN! Unfortunately we cannot control how institutions use our personal information. But we can establish best practices for personal information security, which we will share on this blog regularly. Also remember you are entitled to free annual credit reports, so you can monitor for suspicious activity before applying for that car or mortgage.