Ladies, do you know what’s in your purse?

I never really think about what I’m putting in my purse.  It seems I always use it for everything from a filing cabinet to a safe deposit box or a medicine cabinet.  But the morning of July 4, 2013 changed that habit forever when I decided to take the 5k walk around Prospect Park.  I was so excited about the walk, I just grabbed my purse from where I had left it the day before and headed out the door.  I didn’t do my usual and just carried my wallet neither did I put my purse in the trunk of my car before I drove off.  These are two simple decisions I would soon come to regret.

I got to the park at approximately 7:12 am that morning and proceeded absent mindedly to open my car trunk, plunked my purse in and slammed the trunk shut. I skipped across the park oblivious to the grave mistake I had just made.

smashed carsmashed car 2

About an hour later, I walked up to my car dumbfounded as I stared at the shards of glass littered all over the sidewalk next to it.  I stared at the now windowless back door and thought to myself that I must had forgotten where I parked my car.  However, I knew my grey Toyota Camry and no amount of wishful thinking was going to change the violent scene before me.  My heart sank. My knees shook.

My emotions zigzagged between shock and anger as I slowly realized what I had just lost.  You see not only did I have almost $800 in cash in my purse, I had my drivers licenses, three debit cards, two credit card, my work phone and ID, my checkbook, prescriptions and a host of personal papers I had amassed between work and home.  I had every intention of filing those papers “one day” but could never get around to it.  I know, I know.  I also discovered later, to my chagrin that I had left my journal in my purse as well.

I had a friend examine my car after the police left and he concluded that the thief had backed into it first to see if I had an alarm system.  He or she had then proceeded to smash the glass, pull the back seat down (he obviously knew my type of car), and pulled my purse from the trunk.  He/she left no print or fiber – no clue as to whom had done this horrible deed.  I yelled at God. I cursed the thief but the truth is I had not exercised any of my usual common sense that morning.  The thief had watched me put my purse in the trunk — it was like taking candy from a baby.  However, the pain of my loss was not tempered by accepting the blame.

The most valuable lesson I learned from this harrowing experience is that you never put any valuables in your car, or for that matter anywhere while in public.  I also learned:

  • Take only what you need. I only really needed my drivers license, a few dollars and my phone that morning.  The few dollars, only because I had planned to stop at Trader Joe’s after I was finished my walk.
  • No neighborhood is safe.  Don’t assume that your car won’t be broken into just because it is presumably parked in a “good” neighborhood.  I had subconsciously made this assumption and paid dearly for it.
  • Keep your eyes open at all times.  I was in a good mood that day and had definitely taken leave of my (common) senses.
  • Notify EVERYONE immediately. I had the phone numbers to all my cards in my personal phone which I had brought with me on my walk.  While I waited for the police to arrive, I called all my banks to cancel my credit and debit cards. I also called the security office at my job (to cancel my Blackberry and ID).
  • Follow up.  During the days following July 4, I put a fraud alert on my credit report.  This can be done quickly by going online or by calling any one of the three credit reporting agencies.  Once you place the alert with one agency, a 90 day block is automatically applied to all three major credit reporting agencies.  In addition, I filed Form 14039Identity Theft Affidavit, with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This form can be filed with the IRS if you suspect your identity was stolen and may be used for employment or to file a fraudulent tax return.  I’m not sure what made me do this one but I realized I did not even remember half the stuff I was carrying in my purse. Which brings me to my final point.
  • Review the contents of your purse regularly: discard trash, file important papers and remove unnecessary items.  I mean I really had too much in my purse.  Way too much.

Choosing a tax preparer – it’s not too early

Maybe you are like me and do your taxes yourself.  Or maybe you are like many people who trust someone else to prepare their tax return.  Whether your tax situation is simple or complicated, if you decide to use a professional be sure to use someone who knows what they are doing.  And it is never too early to start looking for that someone, if you do not yet have a trusted tax advisor.  You will want someone who will take the time to know your situation and prepare your return accordingly.

  • Make sure he or she is not only experienced in preparing a return with your unique circumstances but that they also keep up with current changes in the tax code.  I had one CPA who told me he had been doing taxes for something like over 40 years.  However, he did not know that the first $2400 of unemployment insurance was not taxable. This was 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  This was one of many errors he made on that year’s return.
  • Just because they are a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) does not mean that they can adequately prepare your return.    I had another CPA whose return was rejected because he thought an insurance agent could claim a tax deduction on dry cleaning his suits.  The taxpayer was not eligible for the deduction in this case. 
  • Even if the individual is referred by a trusted friend or family member, interview them yourself.  You will be depending on them to know the tax law and you want to feel comfortable you are getting the best service possible.
  • Your tax preparer should be willing to “teach” you about your individual tax situation.  You should know what is expected of you and what to bring to your pre-preparation interview.  Don’t “drive thru” your tax return. You could end up paying too much taxes by missing out on deductions and/or credits or worse, failing to declare income you thought you didn’t have to declare.
  • If paying a professional is an issue, there are numerous nonprofits that provide free tax preparation service. These types of tax preparers are certified by the IRS before they can prepare your taxes.  They are also volunteers who are not allowed to charge a fee or even accept gifts in return for their service.
  • Learn as much as is possible about taxable events in your life.  Bottom line, it  is your responsibility to pay the taxes that you owe in a timely manner to avoid penalties, fees and maybe even jail.  Ignorance is no excuse and there are plenty celebrities who are in jail today because they trusted their every taxable decision to someone else. You don’t have to become an expert but it helps to know the basics for your circumstance. You also owe it to yourself and your family to take advantage of deductions and credits legally available to you.

Having the right assistance and advise can make a world a difference at tax time. April 1 is stressful enough.  Try to reduce the stress by eliminating uncertainties surrounding filing your taxes.  A qualified tax preparer can help.

Next: I will focus on resources for those who prefer to prepare their own returns.



Free tax preparation:

Paid e-File preparers: