Every year, millions of American consumers — nearly 7% of the population — are victims of scams and fraud. In 2017, the number of fraud victims in the US reached 16.7 million, with $16.8 billion lost.
For more than 45 years, I've worked with, advised and consulted with the FBI and hundreds of financial institutions, corporations and government agencies around the world to help them in their fight against fraud.
But my expertise began more than 50 years ago, in an unusual way: I was one of the world's most famous con artists. While I'm ashamed of what I did as a young man — cheating, stealing and, along the way, deceiving and hurting people — I was grateful for the opportunity to turn myself around.
My story, which is depicted in my 1980 memoir, "Catch Me If You Can," gave me a wider audience to talk about fraud prevention.
Identity theft is the deliberate use of someone else's identity (e.g., name, address, Social Security number, bank accounts) to get money and credit, obtain employment, steal property, falsify educational and other credentials, access healthcare and more.
The worst-case scenario is when an identity thief drains your bank accounts, takes your property and sells or trades your sensitive information.
In 2017, during talk I gave at Google, a young man posed a question that I'm often asked: "Given all the advancements in computing and technology, isn't it harder for today's criminals to steal your identity than it was back in the 1960s?"
The answer, I told him, is no: It's not harder. In fact, it's about 4,000 times easier today than it was then.
Identify thieves love technology because it gives them a convenient pathway to the details of your life.
Just think about all that's available to you with just a few taps on your keyboard: Credit card reports, bank account numbers and personal and family details. It's all there.
You just have to know how to look for it — and con artists are very good at seeking and finding information. With today's technology, all a thief has to do is go online, give a check-printing service your name and account number, have the checks sent to a post office box and voilà — there goes the contents of your checking account.
In the 1960s, when I wrote fake checks under a business' or an individual's name and account number — in essence, stealing their identity — I needed a four-color printing press, typesetting equipment and the technical know-how to run those machines.
Now all I'd need to do is go to a corporate website, grab its logo and then to a banking website to download its logo. Next, I'd have to make a phone call to the accounts receivable department of the company whose identity I plan to steal and ask for writing instructions so I could ostensibly wire funds I owe them.
And just like that, I'd know which bank the company uses and its account number at that bank. Then, I'd go online to access the company's annual report.
Lo and behold, now I have a copy of the chairperson's or CEO's signature from the letter at the beginning of the report, which I can put on the checks I created through the miracle of technology. All of it totally authentic to the very last detail — except that the money isn't mine, and the check is a fake.
Want to avoid identity theft? Never, ever use a debit card. I don't own one. I never have and I never will. I don't recommend them to anyone — not my family, not my friends, not you.
As I said at the Google talk, a debit card is certainly and truly the worst financial tool ever given to the American consumer. Why? It's simple: Every time you use one, you put your money and your bank account at risk.
Instead, use a credit card. I use one for practically all of my purchases, even when I'm traveling abroad. With credit cards, federal law limits my liability if there's an unauthorized use of my card.
When I use a credit card, I'm spending the credit card company's money every day until I pay my bill at the end of the month. Meanwhile, my money is earning interest in a bank account.
If there's a large data breach (and you know that there will be) and a criminal does somehow get my credit card number and charges $1 million on it, I'm protected and my credit card company will cancel the card and send a new one within the next couple of days.
I won't be responsible for any purchases made. If the same thing happens and the criminals get my debit card information, however, I could lose the money in my bank account and have a difficult and lengthy time recovering it.
Also, keep your check-writing to a minimum and be vigilant about examining your bank statements frequently.
Frank Abagnale is a former professional impostor and the author of the best-selling memoir, "Catch Me If You Can." He is one of the world's most respected authorities on the subjects of fraud, forgery and cyber security. Trusted by the FBI for more than four decades, Frank also lectures at the FBI's Academy and field offices.
*This is an adapted excerpt from "Scam Me If You Can," by Frank Abagnale with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Frank Abagnale, 2019.
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