Top fraudster Abagnale knows how to avoid identity theft
I RECENTLY had the honour of visiting the Centre for Identity at the University of Texas.
It was a surreal fusion of culture from the Lone Star State and what one can expect from academics specialising in technology.
Numerous rodeo belt buckles, flannelette shirts, corduroy jackets, leather elbow pads and the latest in electronic wizardry.
The centre was hosting its annual national identity security conference.
After 18 hours of flying, I eventually unfolded myself to give the all-American crowd a brief on how identity theft was impacting the Australian and New Zealand communities.
The audience provided useful comparisons on identity theft experienced in the US.
For starters, cheque fraud and counterfeit credit cards are still a major problem over there.
In Australia and New Zealand these are old fraud types that once boomed during a time where we had no chip and PIN technology on our cards, eCommerce was either non-existent or had limited uptake, and cheques were used weekly to pay staff and buy groceries.
Despite this difference, according to the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department and the US Federal Trade Commission, Australia and the US are on par in terms of identity theft occurrence, averaging an impact of about 7.5% of the adult population a year.
Credit card fraud still occupies much of identity credential misuse in Australia, mostly in the use of stolen cards for online shopping purposes.
Helping me to unpick the differences on the identity theft of today versus yesterday was the conference's keynote speaker Frank Abagnale.
You may remember Abagnale as the person who inspired the Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me if You Can.
Abagnale this year is celebrating his 40th anniversary working at the FBI, which arrested him when he was 21.
He spent almost five years in a federal prison, when the FBI recruited him to provide consulting advice to their economic crimes investigation team.
He's been there since.
His son is now an FBI agent and his father has made his honest millions consulting to banks and governments the world over on how he made his money illegitimately during his youth.
By his own admission, as a criminal he did things the hard way.
While groundbreaking at the time, in terms of size, scale and bravado, Abagnale reflected that his offending was complex, logistically hard and high risk.
"Successful identity thieves today don't put themselves in situations where they are seen or become known," he said.
"They don't need to be an outgoing brash con artist. They don't even need to speak with anyone, or set foot in the same country as their victims."
Perhaps a counter-intuitive suggestion to the uninitiated, Abagnale professes to use almost exclusively credit cards.
Yes, it is the most prevalent form of identity credential misuse the world over.
Yes, most Australians will know someone who has had a fraudulent transaction appear on their credit card statement.
Yes, it seems to be the crime of choice for individual criminals and organised crime alike.
But hear Abagnale out.
A credit card is just that. Money that someone else owns. Not his.
His logic is simple - "If I use my debit card or cash or some other value that's not credit, it's mine. And mine to lose. So I don't."
Abagnale uses credit cards because in the event he has a transaction appear that wasn't his own doing, chances are the bank or merchant wears the cost, not him.
Sure there's inconvenience.
But on the whole, in terms of impact on the individual, I've got to agree with Abagnale.
Credit card fraud, out of all types of identity credential compromise and theft, is comparatively low impact.
Compared to what?
Compared to the almost infinite number of ways your identity can be stolen and mis-used.
Like the family in Canberra who had their house sold from under their feet last year.
Or the iDcare client in Auckland who had their business email hacked and inappropriate emails sent to all its customers.
Or the client from Queensland whose image was being used to advertise prostitution services offshore.
All forms of identity theft is abhorrent. Any form will have an impact.
Some of these impacts are lasting, financially devastating and ruining to one's reputation.
If someone said it was going to happen to me one day, and I had a choice as to what form, I would choose credit card fraud every time for the same reason Abagnale exclusively uses his.