October 18, 2019

Never use a debit card, plus other advice from a former con artist

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.

Protect your identity

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.

Technology is the identity thief’s best tool

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.



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