If you really want to know how to protect your vital information from identity thieves, then go straight to the source.
"It's so simple to assume someone's identity today," writes Frank Abagnale for Bankrate. "If you go to the grocery store and write a check for $52, the check has your full name and address, maybe your phone number. It also has the full name and address of the bank where the check is drawn and your account number. Maybe the clerk asks for your driver's license number, which in 19 states is your Social Security number."
Abagnale should know exactly how the scams work, because he used to be the scam artist. Today, he advises governments and even the FBI, on how to fight the crimes he used to commit.
Here are his words of advice....
Identity theft again tops the list of consumer complaints, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission. Frank W. Abagnale, a reformed thief, is now a respected authority on identity theft and other forms of fraud. His book, "Catch Me If You Can," which details his criminal escapades, is the latest Steven Spielberg movie and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. Frank Abagnale wrote this commentary for Bankrate.com.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Frank Abagnale in the film "Catch Me If You Can" Identity theft is one of those things that if it hasn't happened to you, you're not very concerned about it. But, in my career, I don't know of any crime that's easier -- and easy to get away with -- than identity theft.
In 2001, there were approximately 500,000 identity theft victims; that's people who actually filed a police report. It cost banks and credit card companies about $5 billion because they ultimately pick up the tab.
But the consumer doesn't get away scot-free. The average victims will spend $1,374 and 175 hours cleaning up their credit report. It's a great deal of time and money out of their own pockets.
It's so simple to assume someone's identity today. If you go to the grocery store and write a check for $52, the check has your full name and address, maybe your phone number. It also has the full name and address of the bank where the check is drawn and your account number. Maybe the clerk asks for your driver's license number, which in 19 states is your Social Security number.
So, they write your Social Security number on the face of the check, then they ask for a date of birth and a work phone number. Now they can call and find out where you're employed.
Hundreds of people can see this check. People at the grocery store, the check-clearing house. Then it goes back to the payee bank, and if you don't get your checks in your statement it goes to a company that shreds them -- we hope they get shredded and don't make copies. So much information on just that little piece of paper, and that's just one way.
ID theft started years ago with, "If I can get enough information, I can apply for a Visa. I'll use the card for two weeks and throw it away." But now it's, "If I can get enough information I can get a cell phone, I can get a car, a mortgage, I can go to work for a company under contract labor and have somebody else pay the taxes."
Criminals realize it's the simplest scam in the world; no one has to see your face or know who you are.
Only amateurs hack into computers; pros hack into people. If I want a database in a bank, I'm not going to break into their database when all I have to do is sit in front of a bank where people are smoking, walk up to someone and ask where they work in the bank. Then I say, "How would you like to make a lot of money? Give me this information off the screen and I'll give you $5,000."
If you did that to 10 people 25 years ago, two would say yes and eight would report you. People had more ethics and character then. Now, if I can do it and get away with it, it's OK. It's a lot easier to approach someone and get the information than break into the database.
Consumers have to be much smarter.
The biggest thing is guard your Social Security number and monitor your credit report. Monitoring your credit is the only way you can prevent yourself from being a victim.
A monitoring service, such as Privacy Guard, will notify you whenever someone applies for credit in your name or checks your credit history. You can then be proactive; call the person and ask, "Why are you checking my credit?" It might be a landlord or employer; it might be legitimate.
People should also have a shredder at home. Shred account documents before tossing them in the garbage. Also, be careful about putting mail in the box in front of your home. It's best to mail bills and other financial information at a post office mailbox.
We live in a time when if you make it easy to steal from you, chances are someone will.
For a list of recommendations that can help you avoid becoming an identity theft victim, click here.
Frank W. Abagnale is one of the world's most respected authorities on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. For more than 25 years he has lectured to and consulted with hundreds of financial institutions, corporations and government agencies around the world.
Mr. Abagnale has been associated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than 25 years. He lectures extensively at the FBI Academy and for the FBI's field offices. More than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies use his fraud-prevention programs. In 1998, he was selected as a distinguished member of "Pinnacle 400" by CNN Financial News.
Mr. Abagnale believes that punishment for fraud and recovery of stolen funds is so rare, prevention is the only viable course of action.