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NASHVILLE – Frank Abagnale knows fraud and what he sees going on with identity theft amazes him. “It truly is the simplest crime that I have come across in my entire career, and I’ve been on both sides of the law. Any one can become you,” said Abagnale. Some 750,000 people reported having their identity stolen last year, but Abagnale estimates the true number, including those that don’t report, is in the multiple millions. What concerns Abagnale is the ease in which personal information can be obtained; the laws coming out in some states that actually help crooks; and the prison overcrowding situation in this country. Abagnale’s early days as a fraudster was the basis of the hit Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me if You Can, which he says was pretty accurate except for the movie’s depiction of his engagement, his mother remarrying and having a child, and him being an only child – all not true. Now Abagnale is on the other side of the law helping financials and large companies get a handle on fraud, and identity theft is the fraud of the hour. Abagnale has a contract with Progeny Marketing Innovations, Nashville, to help it develop fraud prevention strategies and products. In June Progeny, in conjunction with American International Group, launched Identity Theft Insurance. The insurance provides up to $10,000 for expenses associates with re-establishing one’s credit, payment for lost wages that result from time off work to work on re-establishing identity, a credit alert product, and other tools to help victims battle back from identity theft. Abagnale said Internet sites like docusearch.com, familysearch.org, netdetective2000.com and others have made it almost simplistic for people to obtain personal information on anyone. “Someone can go on the Internet and get 22 different pieces of information on you, your social security number, where you bank, your wife’s name, your wife’s maiden name, who lives in your house that’s not related to you and so on,” said Abagnale. “If you haven’t become a victim of identity theft yet, it’s because no one has picked you yet.” A More Costly Fraud Things are changing on the criminal end. Abagnale said at one time the primary goal was to steal enough of someone’s identity to max out a credit card in the person’s name. Now it’s about buying a car in somebody’s name, getting a signature loan in somebody’s name, a mortgage, an equity loan, and other big ticket loans. He cited the recent story of a man in Montana living in a $310,000 home. He lived there for two years in the name of a 60-year old man living in Denver. The only reason the Denver man found out about the fraud is his daughter got married and when he tried to co-sign a loan on her behalf, the bank asked about his house in Montana. Interestingly, the man in Montana who committed the fraud was making all the mortgage payments on time. That brings up another point. Abagnale said it’s not always ruthless criminals stealing identities, but often people with federal liens or bankruptcies on their credit report who are just looking for ways to get credit. Abagnale said he’s done a lot of research on ID theft and the best protection he sees so far is credit awareness. He recommends consumers use one of the credit services that immediately notifies them if someone is checking their credit. It provides an instant message either by e-mail, phone or pager to alert the consumer of the credit activity, as well as a phone number they can call to inquire. If a man in Florida, for example, is alerted that his credit is being pulled by a Best Buy in Illinois, he can call the company to alert them of the fraud and possibly even apprehend the crook. Progeny’s ID Theft Insurance package includes a credit alert product that scans the big three credit bureaus and notifies users of any activity with their credit. Todd Smith, VP of Marketing for Progeny, said Progeny was trying to meet a need. “It’s a mushrooming problem. Identity theft and fraud costs businesses $600 billion a year, more than is spent on national defense,” he said. Smith said so far 10 credit unions are offering Progeny’s ID Theft insurance, but he noted the product has only been on the market a few months Abagnale said lawmakers are making it easier for the criminals, citing an Illinois law that allows check cashers to sell certified copies of birth certificates, a scenario fraught with fraud potential. A pending bill in Congress would allow illegal aliens to get drivers’ licenses, another dangerous scenario. Congress is also hurting consumers by what they’re not doing, said Abagnale. He cited a failed bill that would have prohibited the sale of social security numbers to third-parties, but it died. “I mean the laws aren’t getting tighter, they’re getting eaiser.” The software companies need to help financials and businesses protect their customers’ information, said Abagnale. “What amazes me is you can go into a credit union or a bank and you have a part-time 17-year old employee working three hours a week that has access to all my private records. Why not have software in place that dictates who can and can’t have access to that information,” said Abagnale. He said credit unions should have software that authenticates users and gives them various access levels based on their position. Once someone is caught committing identity theft, there’s no guarantee they’ll go to jail. In fact, Abagnale says identity theft is a relatively safe crime for the criminal. First they have to get caught, which can be difficult, then they have to be found guilty and finally a judge has to put them away. “Instead of getting tougher we’re letting people out of prison because of overcrowding. The white collar criminals are getting out,” said Abagnale. [email protected]

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