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Tips from an expert on preventing ID theft

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: June 17, 2002

Here’s a hot tip--and it’s not a stock. When “Catch Me if You Can” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, and directed by Steven Spielberg) is released on Thanksgiving Day, it will be a resounding box office success. But I also predict it will never be able to match the true story of the man on whose life it is based, Frank Abignale.

Frank Abignale is one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subject of forgery, embezzlement and identity theft. His expertise comes from experience. Between the ages of 16 and 21 he successfully impersonated an airline pilot, an attorney, a pediatrician and a college professor. And along the way he cashed more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks.

Hire a crook to catch the crooks

Abignale was caught, of course. He served five years in a federal penitentiary. As a condition of his release he has spent the last 25 years assisting federal law enforcement authorities and teaching at the FBI Academy. During that time, he not only redeemed his reputation, but he developed and patented technologies to guard against the $19 billion in check fraud scams that are perpetrated every year.

Abignale kept a LaSalle Bank audience spellbound recently, and it’s no wonder. As identity theft grows more common, we’re all feeling vulnerable. And that’s what makes his new book, The Art of the Steal, one of the most fascinating of the year. It covers cons from Internet scams to hoaxes (beware the check drawn on The Sperm Bank).

But identity theft is the hot topic of the day. While you have a good chance of being completely reimbursed by your bank or credit card company, the sense of personal violation is difficult to erase. And no one compensates victims for the time and energy they spend trying to restore their financial life.

Abignale has some suggestions to protect you and your business.

Guard your Social Security number. Your Social Security number has become the key to your entire identity. It is used frequently for medical insurance identification, for banking identification, and is even posted on your driver’s license in many states. Some people have it imprinted on their checks. And even if you guard your number closely, Abignale says you’ll be surprised at the number of “personal information” Web sites that have all of this information about you for sale to anyone willing to pay the price. (Just think of how many low-paid retail clerks have access to and would sell that information.)

Guard your deposit slips. A thief would much rather have one of your deposit slips than a blank check, says Abignale. Among other ripoffs, the thief may use this deposit slip to make a large deposit into your account--and simply subtract some cash from the deposit at the teller’s window. The deposited check bounces, of course, but he’s already left with the cash that was withdrawn from your balance. Stop using your deposit slips as scratch paper.

Tear up credit card offers. I routinely dump those offers of 1.9 percent cards into the trash. But since I heard Abignale talk, I’ve made a point of tearing them up before discarding them. Many crooks sort through trash, and send back that application--with a slight change of address that enables them to receive the card and start buying things on your credit.

Guard outgoing mail. While many of our readers have locked city mailboxes, the red flags still go up on rural mailboxes, signaling outgoing mail. Others drop their payments in unlocked boxes waiting at the foot of mail chutes in office buildings. Abignale described how the thief takes your payment check, tapes over the signature, then simply “washes” the ink off the check and rewrites it for a larger amount--to himself.

Here are a couple resources to turn to form more help:, and Not only will they help you cope after you’ve been victimized, they’ll give you checklists to make your personal life more secure. For example, you’ll learn to check your credit report frequently.

But to get an overall, shocking, and frequently humorous (if it doesn’t happen to you or your business) view of the kinds of financial frauds going on under the surface in places as diverse as corporate mailrooms and doctor’s offices, you’ll enjoy The Art of the Steal.

Read it--or weep. And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and is on the board of directors of McDonald’s Corp. and Pennzoil-Quaker State Co. Send questions via e-mail to

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