Frank Abagnale: Are You Doing Enough to Protect Your Identity?
Education and Careers Identity theft has progressed into the modern age. The more insight we have into identity-protecting habits and how to avoid social media dangers and phone scams, the better prepared we'll be.
Many Americans first learned about him through the portrayal of his life story in the film “Catch Me If You Can.” But for the last few decades, Frank Abagnale has helped Americans by helping to nab the types of criminals he once was himself. Today, he faces the challenge of educating others, particularly senior citizens, about the threats surrounding them today.
Mediaplanet: How has modern technology affected the likelihood of identity theft?
Frank Abagnale: Identity theft has actually been around since the 1970s, before the Internet, e-mails and data storage. In the old days, this crime was committed by very few because it took a great deal of research and legwork. For example, they would read in the newspaper that Bob Smith was named Homebuilder of the Year. As they read the article, they picked up that Mr. Smith had filed for bankruptcy ten years earlier but has now worked his company out of the bankruptcy and is one of the wealthiest and most successful builders in the country.
The identity thief would take a walk to the bankruptcy court and make a copy of the microfiche of the bankruptcy filing. The identity thief would then use this public record to capture Mr. Smith’s full name, his wife’s name, his date of birth, her date of birth, his social security number and her social security number and then stole their identities. Today, due to technology, an identity thief can do the same thing from as far away as Moscow in their pajamas sitting in their kitchen with a laptop.
MP: What would you say are the most important habits for protecting your identity today?
FA: First, shred any documents that contain personal information that you no longer need. Use a micro-cut shredder. This is a shredder that turns paper into pieces the size of rice and cannot be put back together like straight and criss-cross shredders. Second, use a credit monitoring service that monitors all three credit bureaus and notifies you in real time. Third, only use a credit card—not a debit card. This way, if someone was to steal your information and charge $1 million dollars on your credit card, your liability is zero. They are only accessing the credit card company’s money, not yours. When you pay the bill every month, your credit score goes up. When you use a debit card, you do nothing for your credit score. It is my personal belief that the credit card is the safest form of payment on the face of the earth.
Be careful when writing checks. If you leave a check at a retail store, on that check is your name, address and phone number, your bank’s name and address, your account number at that bank, your routing number into that account (wiring instructions), your signature on the signature card at the bank and then the clerk has written your state drivers license number and your date of birth on the front of the check. We live in truncation, which means you do not get the physical check back. Anyone who sees that check has more than enough information to become you, wire money out of your account or order checks with your account information that would be written and debited against your account.
"Always remember, no bank or government agency is going to call you and ask you for your social security number or personal information."
Social media—if you use Facebook, never state your date of birth and where you were born on your Facebook page. Otherwise you might as well say, “Come steal my identity.”
MP: You were just named AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Ambassador. What responsibilities does that entail?
FA: There are millions of elderly Americans that are scammed out of their life savings every year by unscrupulous individuals who rob them of their money by telephone and the Internet. AARP uses me to help educate their 53 million members via print media, video and actual live presentations to educate them about the most common crimes perpetrated against them. AARP believes as I do, that education is the most powerful tool to prevent these crimes. If you explain to someone their risks, they are smart enough to then go take steps to protect themselves.
MP: How do the risks to seniors differ from those facing younger generations?
FA: Unfortunately, many seniors live alone and when people contact them by phone and the Internet and pretend to befriend them, they can easily fall prey to their scams. The most common scams we see against the elderly are sweepstakes scams.
For example: You won a new Mercedes but you will have to send us a fee or tax before we reward you the gift. You receive a phone call from someone who says they are with the IRS and you owe back taxes. If you don’t pay them in 24 hours, they will put a lien on your property. You receive an email that appears to come from Microsoft claiming there is malware in your computer and they need to have access to your computer to remove it. They then steal all of the data on your computer, family pictures, banking information, etc. and then tell you that if you don’t pay a ransom you will never get it back.
The truth is, even if you paid the ransom, you are never going to get the files back. Always remember, no bank or government agency is going to call you and ask you for your social security number or personal information. Just hang up the phone.
MP: If you could get across one lasting thought to our readers, what would it be?
FA: We live in a too-much-information world. We get on social media and tell people all of our personal information: pet’s name, mother’s maiden name, what kind of car we drive, where we went on vacation, where we are going on vacation and when, what are children’s names are and I could go on and on. If you are going to give away all the information about yourself, then you can expect someone is going to steal your identity. If you make it easy for someone to steal from you, chances are someone will. So don’t make it easy.