16 April 2004

Identity Theft, Fraud So Easy 'It's Absurd'

Identity Theft, Fraud So Easy 'It's Absurd':

(Kennebec Journal) -- KeyBank Maine President Kathyrn Underwood warned that the guest speaker's talk would leave the audience 'scared to death,' and she was right.

Over the next two hours, white-collar crime expert and former scammer Frank W. Abagnale told the 250 people at the Sable Oaks Marriott on Tuesday exactly how easy it is these days for criminals to steal their identities, forge their checks or otherwise defraud them. It's even easier today than when he was a globe-trotting flimflam man 40 years ago, Abagnale said.

'The fact is that what I did 40 years ago is 2,000 times easier to do today,' he said.

Abagnale is the best-selling author of 'Catch Me If You Can,' and was portrayed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the recent hit movie by the same name. It's the story of how Abagnale cashed more than $2.5 million in bad checks in every state and 25 foreign countries between the ages of 16 and 21, impersonating an airline pilot, an attorney, a college professor and a pediatrician.

Police caught him when he was 21, and Abagnale served five years in prison. He was released on the condition that he would help the government by providing advice to law-enforcement agencies. Today, more than 14,000 businesses and law-enforcement agencies use Abagnale's services to prevent fraud.

He doesn't look much like DiCaprio, but his speaking voice has the cadence of a master salesman, giving a hint of the skills he used to fool bank tellers and police alike.

Abagnale described various types of white-collar crime, but spent a majority of the KeyBank talk focused on identity theft and check fraud. When Abagnale forged checks 40 years ago, he said, he needed a $1 million printing press. Today, $6,000 will buy highly portable, top-of-the-line computer equipment that can perfectly duplicate checks and other documents that don't have special defenses built into them, he said.

'Technology is only going to make crime easier -- always has, always will,' said Abagnale.

In 2002, he said, there were 9.9 million victims of identity theft in the United States. Identity theft is when a criminal uses someone else's vital data (birth date, Social Security number and other information) to apply for such things as credit cards, home mortgages and car loans. Identity theft cost defrauded businesses $47.6 billion that year

The total loss to individual victims was $5 billion, and they spent 297 million hours trying to resolve the tangled financial mess left by the thief."

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