You would think returning a lost wallet would be easy to do in New York City in the age of social media, but I found doing the right thing to be much harder than expected.
An Uber driver first spotted the wallet lying on the sidewalk and handed it to me. He didn’t want anything to do with it. This was on my block in Brooklyn, so I felt somewhat responsible for returning the lost item. My first thought was that it must belong to someone who dropped it while looking at the books in our Little Free Library.
Oddly enough, when you find someone’s wallet, you have all their important stuff: credit cards and their ID, but no way to contact them, at least not right away. After thumbing through the cards in the wallet, I resigned myself to the fact that this would take a little time.
So I took the wallet—decorated with an image of Marilyn Monroe—and kept it on the corner of my desk while it was in my possession (a little over a week). It was in awkward spot near my computer mouse so I wouldn’t forget about my mission to return it to the owner.
Here’s what I learned about returning a wallet in NYC.
Social media is not as helpful as you would think
The driver’s license had an address in Staten Island—too far away for me to bring it over in person. It belonged to a woman with two last names, like me.
I tried to find her on several social media platforms using her full name but was unsuccessful. I got lots of hits when I searched for her using her first name with just one or the other last name. I reached out to the few that had a resemblance to the driver’s license photo. A couple of them responded but none had lost a wallet.
Banks may freeze the account when you call
I got some advice when I posted on NextDoor that I was looking to return a lost wallet.
“Take it to her bank. They will contact her for you,” one person commented. This seemed like good advice, and there were lots of bank cards in the wallet, so I called the number on the back of one them to see if dropping the wallet off at her bank would work.
But the representative I spoke to was not helpful at all. She said the bank could not contact the wallet owner, nor would she take my information. There seemed to be no point in bringing the wallet in. She asked for the account number, presumably to freeze the account.
“I wasn’t planning on using the card,” I stammered before hanging up.
That was embarrassing; I felt like I had done something wrong. I wondered: Would a thief call to report a stolen bank card?
Don’t automatically put it in the mail
“Take it to the post office, they will mail it to her,” someone else commented on NextDoor. After my experience with the bank, I didn’t even bother. It didn’t feel right to put the wallet in someone else’s hands.
Similarly, just putting the wallet in the mail to the address on the driver’s license didn’t feel right either. What if she had moved without getting around to updating her driver’s license? Sending it to the wrong place would be like throwing it away, or worse, enabling a thief.
I was definitely overthinking this.
Snail mail to the rescue
In the end, I chose to mail a very short letter with my phone number to the address in Staten Island, asking the recipient to get in touch with description of the outside of the wallet.
A few days later, she texted, thanking me for keeping her wallet safe. “I genuinely can’t thank you enough for holding it,” she said. “It has a picture of a lady on it,” she said, describing the wallet.
Was it possible she didn’t know this was Marilyn? I decided not to mention it. Also a mystery: How her wallet made its way to Brooklyn. The owner didn’t know where or when she lost it.
She also gave me her son’s name—his identification was also in the wallet, and he has an unusual name. She was clearly the owner.
I made another trip to the post office, this time to send the wallet to its rightful owner in a small, padded envelope. My job as good neighbor to a fellow New Yorker was finally done. Goodbye, Norma Jean.