What’s in a name? Your check book, credit card and social security card all hold critical information, that in the wrong hands gives thieves the tools they need to assume your identity. In fact, some of the fastest growing financial crimes in America today are check fraud and identity theft, with check fraud growing at 25 percent each year (according to the American Bankers Association), and the Federal Trade Commission reporting the cost of identity theft to banks and businesses at $56 billion annually.
Despite living in a digital world, “traditional” methods of identity theft are more popular than ever, from dumpster diving to check washing. In fact, check fraud – the paper check’s evil twin – is the most dominant method of fraudulent payment, producing the greatest losses. Check fraud is also the least prosecuted financial crime, and every checking account holder, company, and organization is at risk of becoming a victim.
Consider this: a visit to your doctor’s office, a meeting with the mortgage company, and mailing utility bills can put you at risk. When you visit your doctor and fill out new patient forms, the receptionist copies your insurance card, which includes your Social Security number. You remit your co-pay with a check drawn on your bank account. You have just provided enough information for someone to become you.
Similarly, using a ballpoint pen to write checks is a risk. A thief who steals one of your bills from the mailbox can use household chemicals to wash away the ink denoting the payee’s name, and endorse the check out to himself – or better yet, use the information to apply for credit in your name.
Thirty years ago, check washing using bleach methods was a very popular crime, and check companies created bleach-sensitive checks to combat the problem. However, today’s criminals have devised new methods of check washing using 21 additional household chemicals, bringing back the crime of check washing with a vengeance. Never before have the security measures of a pen been so important in helping to protect against a crime.
Aside from the majority of people who don’t think identity theft can happen to them, many others don’t know the simple, proactive steps they can take to prevent it from happening in the first place. According to a recent poll of 15,000 consumers, 42 percent of respondents said it was important to sign critical documents using a secure pen; however, only 22 percent use a pen with a security promise. Regular ballpoint pens contain washable ink and do not offer the same safeguard.
Reasonably priced and readily available are certain uni-ball pens that contain specially formulated ink that resists check washing and helps prevent identity theft. This ink will not dissolve in chemicals, since the ink’s pigment becomes “trapped” in the paper’s fibers. I remind people wherever I go that using a secure pen is one of the easiest and cost-effective steps they can take to protect themselves.
In addition, you can reduce your personal risk through several other measures:
- Do not sign your checks using your exact name as it is pre-printed on the check, and keep this signature on file at the bank. For example, if the name on the check is Paul M. Smith, sign the check P. M. Smith or Paul Smith as an extra precaution. A thief will most likely sign his name the way it is printed in the upper left hand corner.
- Monitor your credit reports and address discrepancies promptly. All three reporting agencies – Experion, TransUnion and Equifax – offer one free credit report per year just by going to their Web sites.
- Make sure your computer is protected with Internet security software that is updated regularly.
- Use a micro-cut shredder to shred old bank and credit card statements, junk mail credit card offers and old tax returns.
- Do not mail checks from home. They can be stolen from your mailbox, washed in chemicals, and re-used. Mail them from a safe location like the post office or a United States postal service mailbox.
On average, it costs a victim $1,173 and 175 man hours to get a credit report straightened out. Technology is here to stay, but there are still simple and inexpensive ways to prevent identity theft. Choosing the right tools and using common sense is the best defense. If you’re concerned about security, educate yourself and safeguard your personal information. If you make it easy for people to steal from you, they will.
Frank W. Abagnale is the nation’s foremost authority on secure documents and identity theft. Mr. Abagnale has been associated with the FBI for more than 30 years. He was the subject of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Catch Me If You Can. He is the author of The Art of the Steal, The Real-U Guide to Identity Theft and most recently, Stealing Your Life.