Q&A: Storing documents in emergency kits

Dear Liz: I have appreciated your advice over the years, but I strongly disagree with your information about relying on electronic media during a disaster. If a really big disaster happens in this country, there will be no internet or Wi-Fi available. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, everything was offline for days, including gas pumps, banks and grocery stores.

Answer: Natural disasters are obviously quite disruptive, which is why it’s important to keep cash on hand, your gas tank at least half full and a couple weeks’ worth of meals in the pantry. But it’s important to note that quite a few things have changed since 1989, including the prevalence of identity theft.

The original question was specifically about storing copies of driver’s licenses, credit cards and financial records, including bank and brokerage documents, in a disaster kit. A copy of a driver’s license does little to help you prove your identity, since copies can be counterfeited, but it could provide an identity thief with enough valuable information to successfully impersonate you. The same is true of hard copies of credit cards and financial records — the benefit of having them in the kit is outweighed by the risks.

Instead, security expert Avivah Litan suggests storing only the account numbers in the kit, and keeping your driver’s license or other original identifying document with you at all times. She also recommended scanning important documents and storing them in a secure online account.

The providers of these accounts typically have backup systems and alternate power supplies to keep them up and running. The same is true of your financial institutions, which also store electronic records of your accounts. Chances are those servers and backup servers also are located far from where you live, so they probably would not be affected by any disaster that hits you.

Should we have a disaster big enough to knock everyone offline permanently, then all the documents in the world are unlikely to be of much use.