NEW YORK (AP) -- When was the last time you took a good look at all the stuff you carry around in your wallet?
If you're like most people, you've probably got a handful of credit cards, retail store cards and ATM cards. A driver's license or other identification card. Your health insurance card. Video rental cards. Maybe even some paycheck stubs and a few blank checks.
Nobody thinks much about it. But ponder, for a moment: What would you do if you lost that wallet or were the victim of a pickpocket?
''You're in trouble if those documents fall into the hands of criminals,'' said Diane Terry, director of the fraud victim assistance department at the TransUnion credit agency in Fullerton, Calif. ''They act quickly, so you have to, too.''
Aleta Rupert, 33, an events planner for a nonprofit group, knows how painful losing a wallet can be. She had just moved to Chicago in the fall of 1999 when a thief lifted her wallet from her purse in a train station.
''Because I had just moved, there were a lot of things in that wallet I wouldn't normally have had with me,'' she remembers. ''I had more cash than usual. I had just opened a new account with an investment bank. All the PINs (personal identification numbers) were written down.''
Rupert took steps immediately to try to contain the damage. She filed a report with the police, contacted all her credit card companies, stopped payment on outstanding checks and called the credit reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on her files.
But it's still not over for Rupert -- the theft of her wallet made her a victim of the growing crime known as identity theft. She's had to deal with the bank after someone used her old checks. She's had to tell callers checking on new accounts, ''No, I didn't apply for a Kmart card,'' or ''No, I haven't applied for a cellular phone account.''
Even worse, when she checked her credit reports recently before applying for a car loan, she found someone had beaten her to it. ''Someone in Phoenix used my information -- my old driver's license number, my Social Security number -- and got a car loan for $13,000.''
Rupert says she's now trying to get that loan off her credit record.
She's more cautious now, but not in the extreme. ''You've got to live your life,'' Rupert said.
Experts say there are steps you can take to try to protect yourself.
''Limit what's in your wallet to the things you know you need,'' said Carol Mesheske, a specialist in fraud policy issues with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in Washington, D.C. ''Don't carry credit cards you're not going to be using. Don't carry blank checks beyond those you're going to write that day. And never, never keep your PINs with the cards in your wallet.''
Mesheske suggested people keep a list of all their credit and debit card numbers in a safe place at home, along with the phone numbers to be contacted if the cards are lost or stolen.
The FDIC's Web site (www.fdic.gov) has tips on what to do if your wallet is stolen or if you think someone is using stolen documents to try to steal your identity.
Terry of TransUnion says one of the biggest challenges is keeping your Social Security number secure. If thieves get that number, it's easier for them to open accounts and do other things in your name.
''You'll be surprised when you look through your wallet at how many items have your Social Security number on them,'' she said.
For example, it's on most health insurance and prescription benefit cards. It's on many drivers licenses and state-issued I.D. cards. It's on employee expense account forms and, often, payroll stubs. It's on your passport.
''We even see people with their Social Security numbers or driver's license numbers printed on their checks,'' Terry said. ''That's not a good idea.''
She suggests people avoid carrying cards and documents that include Social Security numbers in their wallets. Many states will issue drivers' licenses without your Social Security number on them if you ask. And TransUnion encourages companies not to print complete Social Security numbers on pay stubs and expense checks.
TransUnion maintains a fraud hotline at 800 680-7289. Its Web site, with tips to avoid credit fraud, is www.transunion.com.
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