Image: Overwhelmed woman © Corbis

I got mugged on the way to a conference in Chicago late last month. By the time I got my credit card company on the phone, the thieving punks had already bought themselves sandwiches.

The incident left me slightly sore and fairly rattled. But the worst part wasn't the loss of the cash or my peace of mind.

It was the paperwork and the fear of identity theft.

Even though I'd made a few smart choices (more on that later), my stolen wallet held some potential time bombs:

  • A deposit slip (why was I carrying it?).
  • A department-store credit card I rarely use (ditto).
  • My driver's license.
  • Debit and credit cards.
  • A check from my brand-new business account (to pay my half of a shared hotel room).

I hope this never happens to you. But you should prepare for it right now, while you have the opportunity to cut potential losses. Learn from my mistakes -- and from what I did right.

Time is of the essence

If you're robbed, call the police first. But then call your bank and/or credit card company. Don't wait until the next morning or the next business day. These companies have 24-hour emergency lines. Use them.

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

I immediately froze my personal and business accounts, and canceled the debit cards. Because of the deposit slip, business check and driver's license in my wallet, the thieves could have ripped me off again -- e.g., by printing fake checks -- so I closed the accounts upon returning to Seattle.

I still write paper checks from time to time. For example, my landlords aren't set up for electronic payments. I'd just ordered a new batch, which I shredded. What a waste.

After opening new accounts, I had to re-establish the transactions linked to them: PayPal, monthly contributions to church and charity, automated savings at an online bank and payments for health and life insurance.

A lot of this trouble could have been avoided if the deposit slip and check hadn't been in my wallet. If any item in your bag or briefcase bears a bank account number, take it out.

Stay alert to fraud

As noted, the crooks used my credit card immediately. They didn't have to sign for the transaction because they spent less than $25. That policy really frosts me.

It could have been a lot worse. Julie W.'s wallet went missing last year while she had breakfast with a friend. She doesn't know whether it was stolen outright or whether it fell out of her purse. What she does know is that she didn't spend $2,000 that morning.

"They beelined up to Target and were able to use two different cards," says Julie, a Southern California resident. One was a debit card, but the crook specified "credit" at the checkout and thus didn't need a PIN.

She's spent about 15 hours dealing with paperwork and monitoring accounts. Fortunately, no attempts at identity theft have been detected.

A good place to start is a fraud alert placed with one of the three credit bureaus, which will then notify the two other. This requires potential creditors to take "reasonable" steps to verify identity before issuing credit. Placing the alert is free and can be renewed every 90 days.

You can sign up with a credit-monitoring service, but make sure you're not paying just for stuff you can get for free. The Federal Trade Commission has a couple of useful pages: "Detect Identity Theft" and "Recover From Identity Theft."

What's in your wallet?

Try this: Write down everything that's in your purse, briefcase or billfold. No peeking. Now open it and see if you remembered everything.

For extra credit: How much of that stuff do you use on a daily or even weekly basis?

It could be time for "a wallet audit," according to Denis G. Kelly, the author of "The Official Identity Theft Prevention Handbook." Weed out what you don't need, and make a list of the rest, so in the event of loss you'll know which calls to make.

Write down only the 800 number for each card you carry -- not the card number itself. The customer-service rep can look you up based on security questions.