This story is part of, CNET’s series on how we are now preparing for what may come next.
The worst has happened. An accident or disaster has destroyed your most important personal identification documents, leaving you to search for ways to verify your identity, restore your accounts, and get your life back on track. The good news is that there are several preventative measures you can take to avert the worst case scenario.
Here are three ways to prepare and secure your identifying documents before and after disaster strikes.
Send e-mail to you all your important documents
In the event of fire, flood or other natural disaster, there is no guarantee that even if it is wisely packed in your bug-out bag, your stand-alone data storage devices (such as your external hard drives or thumb drives) will survive. The safest way to avoid total data loss after your physical property is destroyed is to make sure your documents and information are stored digitally on site.
To be safe, you should routinely digitize important physical business, identification, and tax documents as they are created. Simply scan your important records – such as your driver’s license and passport – or take clear pictures of them. Attach these scans to an email and send it to yourself. Also, consider sending them to a trusted person in case you shut down your own email account after a disaster.
When sending scans or photos to yourself, be sure to include key phrases and words in the email that you are likely to remember. In the stress of a disaster, you may not remember the date you uploaded the photos, but you should be able to retrieve the email quickly by searching your inbox for phrases such as “passport and social security.” You can also create an emergency folder in your inbox to store them in.
Keep in mind that your personal information is only as secure as your email provider. For example, if you are a Gmail user, you need to take a few minutes to review your security settings. If you’m not happy with Gmail’s overall security, you should check out the widely acclaimed, privacy-conscious competitor, Protonmail.
Call federal phone lines
If the disaster occurs before you can send copies of all your important documents to you, the US government can help you replace them. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a useful website where you can find phone numbers and websites for a range of federal and locally issued public and private account documents – from your social security card, passport, your Medicare and SNAP cards, to your green cards, birth and death certificates and government IDs and licenses.
Keep this link stored in your browser or send it to yourself in a message that contains all the relevant keywords so that it is easy to search when trying to retrieve the pieces in an emergency.
Use a password manager
If you still have a paper registration of passwords for your online accounts, you may find yourself crammed into an endless cycle of frustrating account lockouts and password resets. To spare yourself this modern nightmare, choose a solid password manager – an encrypted digital vault that stores the login information you use to access apps on mobile devices, websites and other services.
By choosing a good password manager, you will not only be relieved of the burden of having to memorize dozens of passwords in the event of a disaster, but you can also use the manager to create strong, unique passwords. Well-known managers like LastPass and 1Password include this feature, for example, and both have either free versions or trial versions.
Some things to avoid
Following the steps above can protect your documents. But you should also avoid doing any of the examples below to avoid potential security issues:
Do not enter all your usernames and passwords in a single Google Docs. Gathering all the information in a single document means that someone just needs to hack into your Gmail account to access each individual account.
Do not add important numbers such as your passwords or passport numbers to your email provider’s address book. Just as you do not want to create a single access point to all your accounts through a Google Doc, you do not want to turn a hack into your email account into a massive intrusion into all of your accounts and personal identification.
Do not delay when your password manager has an update available. The earlier you install a software update, the less you risk a security compromise.