To identify thieves, a recycling bin, a mailbox, a parked car or a lonely purse left behind on a church pew are like all-you-can-steal buffets.
Names, addresses and ID numbers are right there for the taking. I've seen it all, and believe me: They do get taken.
For more than 45 years, I've worked with the FBI, along with hundreds of financial institutions, corporations and government agencies to help fight fraud. But my expertise began more than 50 years ago, in an unusual way: I was one of the world's most famous con artists.
I'm not proud of the things I did, but my story, which is depicted in my 1980 memoir, "Catch Me If You Can," gave me the opportunity to educate people of all ages on how to prevent themselves from getting scammed.
The most common form of identity theft is when someone uses another person's information for financial gain. Often, this happens when a purse or wallets get stolen.
Carole Crane, considered one of the most prolific identity thieves in the Portland, Oregon area, is known for rifling through handbags in churches, preschools and doctor's offices — all places where people often let down their guard.
She took the information she found and created fake credit cards, driver's licenses and bank accounts for herself and her associates. Crane's gang victimized more than 50 people and 50 banks and stole nearly $200,000, according to an FBI press release.
The theft of a wallet is unnerving, to say the least, and it's a huge burden for many: Victims must notify the police, banks, credit card companies, DMV, health insurance carrier, Social Security Administration and so on.
But there are measures you can take to limit those hassles. The first step is to avoid carrying these things in your wallet:
1. Too many credit and debit cards. The fewer debit and credit cards you carry with you, the fewer you'll have to freeze or cancel should your wallet disappear.
I don't even recommend using debit cards at all. In fact, I don't own one — I never have, never will and never recommend them to anyone. Every time you use a debit card, you put your money and your bank account at risk.
Instead, I keep two credit cards in my wallet: One for personal purchases and one for business purchases. That's it. With credit cards, federal law limits my liability if there's an unauthorized purchase.
Also, I'm spending the credit card company's money every day until I pay my bill at the end of the month. Meanwhile, my money is earning interest in a bank account.
If you have many store credit cards, you should only take the ones you plan to use when you leave the house. While these can help you establish credit and may give you discounts or other benefits, you probably don't use them all that often, so you may forget which ones exactly you've been lugging around.
Another downside of keeping too many credit cards in your wallet is that you may be tempted to use them and not pay them off, which can ruin your credit score and lead to a ton of debt.
2. Social Security card. When was the last time you needed to pull out your Social Security card? A fraudster can easily use that number to open a new credit card.
3. Checks. If you know you have to write a check, take one — and only one — with you. Check fraud is just too easy to pull off, which is why I rarely even use them.
If I absolutely need to use one, I use an inexpensive gel pen, because that ink can't be washed off. Look for pens with specially formulated ink that becomes trapped in paper. This helps prevent criminal check washing and other document alterations.
Second, I only write checks that go directly to the addressee. For example, it's usually safe to write a check to your insurance company. But if you write a check to a specific store, you know that more than one person will see it before it gets deposited.
Your check contains all kinds of information (e.g., account and routing numbers, your name and address) that can be used to steal your money. You may also be asked to write your driver's license number on the check, along with your date of birth. Your signature is on the check, too.
Anyone from the clerk to other workers and even couriers can see the face of the check and potentially gain access to your bank account.
4. Bank deposit slips. These contain exactly the same information as your checks and are a key that unlocks your bankbook.
5. Gas station and ATM receipts. Even items considered detritus by most people have scraps of usable information, such as the last four digits of your credit card, which can be used to help reconstruct entire account numbers.
Your wallet should not contain your life. Don't carry with you what you don't need. Here's my recommendation for what to keep in your wallet:
- Your driver's license
- Copy of your health insurance card
- Copy of your automobile insurance card
- Copy of your car registration
- Copy of your Medicare card (with all but the last four digits blacked out)
- One or two credit cards
- Your identification card for work
- A small amount of cash for incidentals
Of course, even if your wallet does get stolen and you have only the items above in it, you'll still have to act promptly and notify the institutions and agencies affected by your loss.
The good news is that you won't have to spend as much time taking care of things. You just have to act fast: Time really is money here — and it's your money.
Frank Abagnale is a former professional impostor and author of the best-selling memoir, "Catch Me If You Can." He is one of the world's most respected authorities on the subjects of fraud, forgery and cyber security. Trusted by the FBI for more than four decades, Frank also lectures at the FBI's Academy and field offices. His latest book, "Scam Me If You Can," offers simple strategies on how to stop scammers in their tracks.
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