It could happen to any of us.  We’ve all felt that moment of panic when your purse or wallet goes missing.  Whether accidentally left behind or outright stolen, a missing wallet is a major headache.  But today’s world of cyber scammers and dark web hackers make it more critical than ever to be super diligent when unwinding a missing wallet.

Take heed of the cautionary tale that follows!

Last month, a dear friend dropped off her car at the dealership for service and hopped in the Uber that they’d kindly ordered to shuttle her around for errands.  Off her normal routine, she left her purse behind in the Uber and – because it wasn’t her account – had no way of tracking down the car.  Sadly, no Good Samaritan came to her rescue and the purse and wallet vanished.

As soon as she realized what happened, she took all the right steps – contacting her bank and every credit card she’d opened since college to report the cards stolen. She was given a new bank account and issued new cards without any problem. As do many of us, she depends on PayPal for much of her online shopping, so she also called them to update her credit card on file.

This is where things went terribly wrong. To get in touch, she Googled “PayPal” and dialed the first number that popped up. When my friend shared with PayPal that her wallet was missing, she was swiftly transferred to the fraud department…or so she thought.

After 90 minutes answering a litany of questions, she revealed a significant amount of personal information. When “PayPal” asked if a Walmart was nearby, she immediately hung up – but it was too late, the damage had already been done.

The scammers impersonating workers within the fraud department at PayPal managed to gain access to my friend’s PayPal account and withdraw money. They were able to access her new bank account and withdraw money from there, as well. They made charges to her newly-issued credit cards, including purchasing PlayStation gift cards on Amazon – a great Christmas gift for someone, but nothing she’d ordered for her own family. Instead, a week before Christmas, she had the gift of spending three full day days untangling the financial mess.

I know what you’re thinking: “Sad story, but your friend must be really gullible.”  Quite the opposite!  In addition to a thriving career, she masterfully juggles two kids and a husband – and she’s in charge of the household budget.  Simply put, she has her act together.  That’s why this story is an important reminder that ANYONE can be duped by today’s very cunning scammers.

Do your best to prevent this scenario in your own life:

1. Keep watch. Thoroughly review your credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion once a year. Flag your calendar (January is a great trigger with the start of the new year) to go directly to each credit rating agency’s website to download your credit report.

2. Freeze your credit. Not buying a house or opening a credit card anytime soon? Then freeze your credit to guard against fraudsters from opening accounts in your name.

3. Lock it up. Add two-factor authentication to all bank accounts, brokerage and retirement accounts, credit cards, and any other financial accounts with online access.

4. Establish a verbal password. Fraudsters will call financial institutions and impersonate you to access funds. Ask your bank or brokerage firm to add a verbal password for an added level of security for your account.

5. Stop using your debit card for online shopping. Unlike debit cards, where cash is immediately withdrawn for transactions, credit cards usually provide more protection and reimbursement against unauthorized charges. Just be sure to pay off your credit card’s balance every month.

6. Clean your virtual house. Delete your debit card from PayPal, Amazon, and any other website that stores payment information. That way, if your account is hacked, your debit card information will no longer be there for the taking.

7. Skip the search engines. Ever notice how easy it is to search for a company or product and wind up on another site? Go directly to the website you need and learn to recognize when a link is an ad versus an authentic, organic search result.

Remember: we can arm ourselves with all the anti-virus software in the world, but at the end of the day, the weakest link is human error. Read more about how COVID-19 is being used to scam consumers and additional steps you can take to keep your loved ones safe.