Anthony Brown, 24, of New Jersey, hit the stores at 3 a.m. last Black Friday, excited to buy video games for his son and find other deals. He even stopped at an ATM before to take out $1,000 in cash for gifts. But when he reached for his list in between stores, Brown realized he set down his wallet at a checkout counter and never put it back in his pocket. He ran back to the store, but the wallet had disappeared, so he called the bank to cancel his cards.
With cash and credit cards gone, Brown headed home without finishing his holiday shopping. "I ended up missing all the Black Friday deals and couldn't get to the bank until Monday to get cash," he says. Not only that, but he lost the Social Security card in his wallet and all the cash from the ATM – an expensive and inconvenient mistake.
As deal-hungry shoppers pour into stores on Black Friday, the crowds and chaos of the holiday shopping season make it all too easy for shoppers to leave their wallets unattended and for pickpockets to steal them. According to Matt Fleischmann, owner of Diversified Threat Management, a private security company in Orange County, Calif., any setting involving large groups with the potential for close contact – including malls, holiday carnivals or parades – can be a prime target for pickpockets. "They like to invade your space with an accidental bump," he says. "Criminals are professionals at what they do, meaning they will not announce their intentions, but will cleverly justify invading your space to access your wallet or purse."
[Read: 8 Potential Pitfalls of Credit Cards.]
Here are some tips to minimize the impact of a lost or stolen wallet and advice on what to do if it happens to you:
Only carry what you need. Don't treat your wallet or purse like a filing cabinet, complete with checks and important documents. "A lot of people, including myself, don't go in their wallet very often and clean it out," Fleischmann says. "Make sure you only have what you need in your wallet." If you need to bring your Social Security card or birth certificate to work for personnel paperwork, bring it home afterward rather than keeping it in your wallet indefinitely. Instead of carrying multiple credit cards, carry the one you plan to use and keep the others in a safe location at home. That way, if your wallet is lost or stolen, you'll have access to another credit card while replacing the missing card. And don't keep debit cards and personal identification numbers in the same place because that makes it all too easy for thieves to access your account.
Don't flash cash. Credit cards are replaceable, but cash is not and could make you a target for pickpockets. "If you pull out a wad from your pocket and some guy sees you have a thousand bucks in cash, your odds of being a victim are a lot higher," Fleischmann says. If you must pay for something in cash, consider getting a cashier's check instead, he adds.
Photocopy the contents of your wallet. After her wallet was stolen on the way to her office in Chicago, Mary Chase, 55, began photocopying the front and back of each card in her wallet and storing the copies separately. "Tracking down all the information and trying to call [all my banks] was a real nuisance," she says. "This way, I have all the information I need to call quickly." She wasn't sure which cards were in her wallet when it was stolen, so she ended up cancelling some cards that she later found at home and not cancelling others that were, in fact, in her wallet. She's now more careful about limiting the number of cards in her wallet to minimize these hassles in the future. "Especially around the holiday season when there's lots of people, I wouldn't tempt somebody," she says. "The less you have in there, the better."
Report a missing purse or wallet. As soon as you realize your wallet is missing, Fleischmann recommends calling the police and filing a report. "Just because you lost it obviously doesn't mean it's stolen, but by reporting it, you're going to have the potential for recovery," he says. If you're in a store or shopping mall, the loss-prevention department or mall security may have security footage that could help identify suspects, he adds.