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Trust Is a Tricky Thing

4 Jun 2013
When can you trust a con man? If your answer is never, you are either smart, cynical, or you've watched The Grifters as many times as I have. How about when a con man is trying to warn you against being conned by someone else, as in trust me, I should know  can you trust a con man then? The Spanish Prisoner, a film I recently viewed, is based on a classic con with exactly that premise. So when I attended a lecture recently by Frank Abagnale, the real-life character portrayed by Leo DeCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, it was amusing to hear him tell his audience how to protect ourselves against fraud in today's cyber-dangerous world. Amusing, and impressive enough to trigger immediate changes to my financial methods.

In case you missed the book and the movie, Abagnale left his broken family at the age of 16 and became a world-class paper hanger  writer of bad checks. During the 1960s he successfully pretended to be a Pan Am pilot for millions of miles of travel to twenty-six countries, a pediatrician in a hospital, and a government attorney. By the time he was busted by French police at the age of 21, Abagnale estimates he made off with more than $2.5 million. He spent six months in a hellish French prison, more time in a dorm-like Swedish prison, and four years in U.S. federal prison. Under the terms of his parole, he worked for the FBI for years, often undercover. Today he works as a security consultant, with the FBI only one of his clients.

A fast-talking, charismatic hustler like Abagnale would never be safe to fully trust, unless you can be sure that he has nothing to gain from his advice to you. In his lecture Abagnale has a lot to say about the dangers of identity theft in today's world. Facebook, of course, is simply out of the question. Posting your birth place and birth date makes it easy to steal your identity, he points out. Your Facebook photos make it possible for strangers, using commercially available facial recognition software, it identity you within seconds after taking your photo.

If you want to protect your identity, just do as I do, Abagnales advises. Are you ready? I've never owned a debit card, he says, and I've never allowed my kids to have them. One of those kids is now an FBI agent himself. Abagnale uses credit cards exclusively. When you use a credit card, you are using the bank's money, and they assume the liability. When you use a debit card, your entire bank account is at risk. You are using your money, not theirs. You assume the liability. Even if you only use it at the ATM machine or gas station, someone could be sitting across the street with a laptop, intercepting everything. Indeed, some shady gas stations may have scanners that record the debit card information directly from the pump.

Abagnale points out that if you are helping college-age children deal with their finances, you can acquire a supplemental credit card that is attached to your account, but which helps the student build a good credit score (something a debit card cannot do). If you pay the bills promptly, you can get by with little or no interest to pay.

Perhaps the bigger surprise comes from Abagnale's advice against using checks except under the most constrained circumstances, such as to pay your mortgage. Your check has your name, address, bank account number, and bank routing number, he says. That's all I need to wire transfer everything out of it, or to create phony checks of my own. Why take a chance and give that information to any stranger who sees the check?

While I have never suffered the worst forms of identity theft, on two occasions I have had my debit card information stolen. Each time hundreds of dollars was taken from my bank account. The first time was in Houston; the money was taken in an ATM transaction, which means my card was cloned. The second time was in Las Vegas, but the card data was used for an online purchase across the country. In both cases I believe the card information was stolen at a restaurant. If you give your card to a server for payment, there is ample opportunity to copy the magnetic strip before you get it back. So don't do that!

Now I never hand over a debit card. Chase Bank has a strong customer protection policy, so I was lucky. Because I monitor my accounts daily online, I caught the problems within hours. Chase reimbursed my money within twenty-four hours. From friends using other banks I have heard horror stories, particularly those with accounts at Wells Fargo. Some people have gone weeks before they were reimbursed, if they were reimbursed at all.

If you use a debit card, it is up your bank to decide whether to help you out or not. If you use a credit card, you're covered. I am convinced. I have already acted accordingly. Do you have a cyber theft story to tell? Unless you are careful, you will have one soon.

You may also like this related article: Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis (2014) (3)
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