It’s only fitting that a man who cashed millions in fraudulent checks in his heyday as a con artist now advises against using checks at all.
“There’s too much information on checks,” said Frank Abagnale, a former fraudster who successfully posed as an airline pilot, an attorney and a doctor between the ages of 16 and 21. Abagnale’s exploits were depicted in the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, “Catch Me if You Can.” He now advises businesses and government agencies around the world on fraud and has worked with the FBI for more than 40 years after serving time in prison.
In an interview with The World-Herald on Thursday, Abagnale shared some of his tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft and other forms of fraud. Later, he spoke on the same topic to a group of about 400 at the Jewish Community Center of Omaha, an event hosted by the AARP.
“I only ask people to do what I do myself,” Abagnale said.
He said checks are dangerous because consumers hand over their name, address, account number, routing number, signature, phone number and, often, their driver’s license number. The checks are then often sent to large warehouses where they are stored and eventually destroyed. In the meantime “anyone can make a copy of it,” he said.
Abagnale also recommends shredding everything — even that shoe catalog you got in the mail — with a micro cut shredder, which shreds paper down to the size of rice granules so that it cannot be put back together.
He also recommends using a real-time credit monitoring service for all three credit bureaus and avoiding debit cards.
“Every time you take (a debit card) out of your pocket you’re exposing” your money in your account, Abagnale said. “The safest thing is a credit card.”
That way if the number is stolen and fraudulent charges are made to the card, the credit card company is on the hook, not you. Credit charges can easily be disputed, he said, but it’s hard to recover your own money once a thief spends it.
New microchip-equipped credit and debit cards are to be issued by Oct. 1 in the United States, but U.S. requirements do not include a personal identification number with the cards, only a signature.
“We’ve diluted it considerably,” Abagnale said. The technology will help prevent people from cloning cards, but it will only move the fraud online, where a PIN or signature isn’t required to make a purchase.
Abagnale said he thinks he could get away today with the stunts he pulled in the 1960s, aside from posing as an airline pilot. Even that wouldn’t be that hard, he said, with badges for airline workers that could easily be replicated. Fraud has evolved with technology, making it more of a global enterprise and more difficult for law enforcement.
“It would be thousands of times easier today than when I did it,” Abagnale said. “Technology breeds crime.”