I spent last Monday looking for my wallet, racking my brain for where in the world it could be. Trying to remember where I had it last, I could only retrace my steps back to Target, where I'd shopped (and bought entirely too much, by the way) earlier in the weekend. After that, nothing. Nada.

My wallet wasn't in the car, or tossed in one of my shopping bags, or sitting on the desk, or stuck between the couch cushions. The dog didn't eat it because, as yet, we have only a parakeet. I had a sinking feeling it was lost for good.

So, I thought to myself: Now what? My whole life was in there -- not just my photo and home address, but, technically, the permission to use my car (driver's license), my access to medical care (insurance card), my source of entertainment (library card -- no snarky comments, please), and my buying power (credit and ATM cards). Luckily, my Social Security card and passport were not in the mix. But still, this is enough gone missing from one's life to cause major inconvenience.

The aggravation of replacing your wallet's contents can get trumped, however, by having to explain to your credit card companies and the credit bureaus that no, you did not go on a wild shopping spree in Rome this week, and no, you didn't apply for all those new credit cards. Missing wallets can, unfortunately, mean that thieves are fast at work.

Here's a quick guide on how to foil the bad guys (and save yourself a big headache):

  • Cancel your credit and ATM cards immediately. If a creepy someone has hold of your information, you want him to be thwarted as soon as possible. While many credit card companies and banks will refund you in the event of fraud, it's not typically a seamless process retrieving the money. You have to fill out paperwork, including various affidavits; cancel your accounts; and follow up with the credit bureaus to ensure your credit stays untarnished.
  • Report the loss to the police. I struggled with this one since, to be honest, I can't be certain that someone stole the wallet -- maybe I just dropped it. But even if you helped the thief by losing track of your wallet like me, filing a police report is still a good idea. Reporting the crime is all about proving that you did your own due diligence in case of fraud since, frankly, the odds of recovering your wallet or seeing the thief in court someday are virtually nil.
  • Activate the security in Social Security. If your Social Security card was in your wallet, or the number itself was included in the contents of your wallet (some health insurance cards use SSNs as member ID numbers, for example), call the fraud hotline at the Social Security Administration, 1-800-269-0271.
  • Contact the credit reporting bureaus. If identity crooks get their paws on your personal information, you'll be happy you placed a fraud alert on your credit files. Here's the contact information for the three major credit reporting bureaus:
    Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
    Experian: 1-800-493-1058
    TransUnion: 1-800-916-8800
  • Contact the DMV. You should report your driver's license missing and apply for a replacement with a different number.
  • Be prepared for next time.
    1. Xerox the contents of your wallet, front and back.
    2. Monitor your credit by obtaining your free annual credit report.
    3. Guard your Social Security number by removing it from your wallet.
    4. Pore over your bank and credit card statements to be sure no charges are fraudulent.

Want some more tips on keeping your private information private? Check out these articles:

This article is adapted from the Motley Fool Green Light "Money Answers" archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor. She's married to Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter.