Why Getting Enough Sleep Is the Key to Protecting Your Identity

I pride myself on staying on top of my finances. I track my spending carefully and stick to a budget. I have all my credit cards set on auto-pay. And thanks to Experian IdentityWorks, I check my credit reports and scores religiously to make sure my identity is secure.

But frankly, none of that matters unless I get enough sleep. That's an important lesson I learned this summer after being careless with my credit cards and personal information not once, but twice—all because I was too tired to pay attention.

The first case happened in June when I took a 6 a.m. flight to Michigan for a college reunion. A flight that early meant I had to leave my house around 4 a.m.—and of course, I stayed up too late packing the night before. I did manage to catch some shut-eye on the plane, made it to my destination by 9 a.m. and spent the rest of the day working.

Of course, I should've simply called it a day after work and gone to bed early, if the enormous yawns I couldn't stifle after 6 p.m. were any indication. Instead, I decided to go grocery shopping that night to prepare for my reunion at a lake house the next day. So I stocked up with goods from Costco, Trader Joe's and made my final stop at Meijer, a local grocery chain in the midwest.

As I ambled through the store, my purse sat in the front of my cart—gaping open. Now, when I'm traversing the streets of New York City, I guard my bag like a mama lion protecting her cub. Being in a sleepy little Michigan town gave me a false sense of security; couple that with exhaustion from a lack of sleep, and I let my guard down.

After I finished my shopping—I paid for it with a credit card that I kept in the sleeve of my phone—I got in my car. That's when the text messages started coming in. Several of my credit card issuers sent me alerts asking if I'd just spent thousands of dollars at various retailers around town.

How to Set up Credit Card Alerts

If you don't have text alerts set up on your credit cards notifying you of excessive spending and security issues, do so immediately. They're a lifesaver. Of course, every credit card issuer likely has a slightly different procedure, but you can usually set up alerts this way:

  1. Log into your credit card account on the issuer's website or app.
  2. There is typically a menu option for "account alerts." This is sometimes located under a "settings" preference.
  3. There, you'll find the ability to turn alerts on for a variety of situations, like when your payment is due, or if someone charges more than a certain amount on a single transaction (you can set the threshold). Some cards will even let you set an alert for every single time your card is used in a transaction. Others, like Discover, offer an alert for "any unusual activity on your account."
  4. You can choose to be alerted via email, text or both. For certain types of alerts, like unusual activity, it's smart to get text messages, in case you don't check your email in time.

That's when I frantically dug through my purse—only to realize that my wallet was missing. Apparently, while I had been sleepily stocking up on guacamole, tortilla chips, and Michigan cherries, someone had stealthily plucked my wallet from my bag while I wasn't paying attention—and proceeded to go on a multi-thousand-dollar shopping spree!

I spent the rest of the night frantically canceling all my credit and debit cards, calling the police to file a police report and thanking my lucky stars that my driver's license happened to not be in my wallet that day—it had also been in my phone sleeve for easy access while traveling—and my phone had been in my hand. (If your wallet gets lost or stolen, follow these steps to recover your identity.)

The whole experience put an enormous damper on my vacation, and I have been kicking myself for letting my lack of sleep get in the way of being alert to my surroundings.

If you don't have text alerts set up on your credit cards notifying you of excessive spending and security issues, do so immediately. They're a lifesaver.

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson, right? Wrong.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I'm returning from a weekend trip late on a Sunday evening. It was close to midnight, and once again, I was exhausted and ready to drop into bed. Instead of the subway, I took a cab from the bus station, anxious to get home. Once I got to my apartment, I paid for my ride with a credit card, collected my things and collapsed into bed.

Except, once again in my sleepy state, I was so anxious to get inside that I forgot to retrieve my credit card from the card reader! Turns out, the customer after me treated themselves to a free ride on my credit card. For the second time in as many months, my carelessness during a vulnerable moment put my identity at risk.

But my situation is hardly surprising. Research indicates that even moderate sleep deprivation has the same effect on cognitive abilities as does being legally drunk. Another recent study found that lack of sleep takes a severe toll on decision making. And there are numerous other studies documenting the impact insufficient sleep has on our health, judgment and safety.

Needless to say, I felt incredibly stupid. Fool me once, and all that. But it was a hard-earned lesson: No matter what I do to protect myself, it's all irrelevant unless I stay vigilant and alert. And that means that when I'm overtired or suffering from lack of sleep, I need to stay at home—or guzzle some caffeine to stay awake so I don't make foolish mistakes like I did this summer.

Luckily, my total losses were minimal, partly because my job has taught me what to do in the case of this type of emergency. My credit card issuers covered all the fraudulent charges, and I had only had a few bucks in my wallet. After this scare, I'm keeping a close eye on my credit reports to make sure the culprits don't try to open any credit in my name and, more importantly, I'm committed to getting eight hours of sleep every night.

For additional information, see: Lost or Stolen Wallet? Here's What to Do.