This article originally ran in the December 2001 issue of Money Magazine.
NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- As an avid mystery reader, I know that all great sleuths have one thing in common: an understanding of the criminal mind. In fact, Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton's private eye, has suggested that if she weren't chasing crooks, she'd be a pretty good one herself.
So when I was offered the chance to talk with former scam artist and imposter Frank Abagnale about identity theft, I jumped at it.
Identity theft is a huge and growing problem. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, it claims half a million victims annually and costs financial institutions more than $5 billion. Worse, the crimes themselves are becoming more sophisticated.
Early identity thieves were happy to dig a pre-approved credit-card solicitation out of your trash and apply for a card in your name. Today they get loans, mortgages, even jobs. Then they let the Internal Revenue Service come after you for back taxes.
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If it happens to you, you're basically on your own, although six identity-theft bills have been introduced in Congress, and Federal Trade Commissioner Timothy J. Muris says, "We're taking steps to make it easier for people who have been victims of identity theft to rehabilitate themselves."
The bottom line: In identity theft, as in football, your best offense is a good defense. The basic principle, says Abagnale, whose book "The Art of the Steal" came out in October, is to stay tight-lipped. Don't give out your Social Security number unless absolutely necessary. Don't print more than your name and address on your checks. Never give information on the phone to someone who has called you. And take the following precautions.
Guard your deposit slips After talking to Abagnale, I'll never write a shopping list on a deposit slip again. Why? A crook could drive up to my bank, use one of his own checks to write a worthless check to my account, deposit it and--using the "less cash received" line on the slip--pull out $100. (Most banks will check ID for more than that.) That's check fraud, so I wouldn't be held liable, but I'd have to go through the hassle of filing an affidavit to get my money back. Or, even worse, the thief could use the slip to get himself a supply of my checks.
Watch the mail Tear up all pre-approved credit solicitations and pay attention to billing cycles. If a credit-card bill is more than a few days late, call the issuer and ask if there have been any inquiries or changes to your account.
Watch your back I'm serious. The next time you're writing a check in the grocery store, ask yourself how long it would take a thief to memorize the name, address and phone number on your check, and the number on your driver's license (which just may be your Social Security number). Abagnale's estimate: eight seconds.
Be suspicious Years ago when someone picked your pocket, they took the cash and threw the wallet in the trash. Today they look for a business card, head to a phone, call you and say, "I just found your wallet. I'll send it back." You're relieved -- and they get two more days to use your credit cards.
While we do what we can, let's encourage creditors to do their part. How? By doing a better job of checking the basic information on credit applications. A change of address could easily be a giveaway for fraud.