Forty years ago, few people could have predicted that identity theft would become as big an epidemic as it is today. Few could have imagined protecting your ID would mean taking mail to the post office instead of leaving it in our mailboxes for pickup, shredding documents before throwing them in the trash, or that a $2 pen could help prevent a crime.
Amid this epidemic, we see more and more people become faceless victims — victims of identity theft. Powerless, we waste countless hours and money recovering from what was taken from us — our name, our credit, our money — essentially, our lives. The problem is we are a reactive society. We wait until a problem surfaces before seeking a solution.
We need to find ways to protect ourselves before identity theft strikes. We can make drastic improvements toward diminishing this crime, but it will never disappear altogether. If you haven’t been a victim of identity theft, it is because thieves haven’t gotten to you yet. If things fail to change, your turn will come. Prevention is not simply a matter of following a checklist of tips, it is about education — the primary factor in protecting ourselves.
While more and more people are using online banking, America’s 78 million Baby Boomers, who make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, continue to be a paper-driven majority. This group also accounts for 30 percent of fraud victims, as estimated by Consumer Action, a consumer-advocacy group.
A check holds all of the information needed to steal your identity: name, address, bank account, routing number. If written with a ball point pen, information can easily be removed by a process called check washing, a common form of identity theft. It is the process of taking a check or document that has already been filled out, removing the ink with a regular household chemical, then re-writing in a new dollar amount and recipient. If you are careless, your personal check could contribute to the 1.2 million fraudulent checks written every day. That’s more than 13 per second.
The American Bankers Association states that check fraud is growing 25 percent per year. To slow this growth, we need to understand how it works. I know firsthand how easy it is to perform check fraud. About 40 years ago, I cashed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries over a five-year period. I was involved in a high-stakes game of stolen identities. And to know how easy it can be to perform, I know it is just as easy to prevent.
Criminals rely on our mistakes to make their job easier. Taking a few precautions will make you less attractive to predators. Don’t leave mail in your mailbox overnight or over the weekend. Thieves wait for that red flag to go up to score an outgoing check or other personal information. When writing checks and filling out important documents, use a gel pen, like the uni-ball(r) 207, so thieves can’t remove the ink and change the information. These pens trap the ink within the fibers of the paper, making it essentially impossible for check washing to occur. Additionally, shred or tear up unwanted documents that contain personal information before discarding them. The cost of a high-quality shredder is far less than the cost of having your identity stolen.
Let’s face it; we can’t always control what is happening in our world, so we must take steps to control what we can. Technology is here to stay, but there are still simple and inexpensive ways to prevent identity theft when writing checks. Remember that a crook always looks for the easiest route to riches. Don’t hand him a map. Be proactive and start protecting yourself today.
Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. was a check forger for five years in the 1960s. Currently he runs Abagnale and Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company. His life story provided the inspiration for the feature film Catch Me If You Can, nominally based on his ghost-written biography of the same name. His latest book, Stealing Your Life was recently released in April 2007.