Part 2: Famous con man turned cybersecurity expert urges credit freezing

Con man turned Leonardo DiCaprio movie character turned cybersecurity expert, Frank Abagnale, talks with TechRepublic's Karen Roby about the steps people can take to protect their identity.

Security expert Frank Abagnale: Drop the debit card and freeze your credit Con man turned cybersecurity expert Frank Abagnale talks with TechRepublic's Karen Roby about the steps people can take to protect their identity and encourage better credit practices.

In part two of TechRepublic's four-part series "Mastermind con man behind Catch Me If You Can talks cybersecurity," TechRepublic's Karen Roby sat down with Frank Abagnale, the famous con man turned FBI Academy instructor, who inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the movie Catch Me If You Can to discuss what people can do to protect their identity—and credit. 

The following is an edited transcript of their interview held at Louisville's Bowman Field Regional Airport. 

SEE: Mastermind con man behind Catch Me If You Can talks cybersecurity (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Frank Abagnale: I get asked a lot about how do you protect yourself from identity theft, which is a big issue. And probably everybody in this country has had their identities already stolen because we've had over a billion identities stolen. We only have 340 million people in America, including babies and children. So I always tell people, "I just do a few things." 

First of all, I do freeze my credit. I do still use a monitoring service because I like to check my own credit. So for $14, $17 a month, I can go online and look at all three credit bureaus. I can look at inquiries being made on my credit. If something's not accurate; I can fix it. 

So, for that amount of money, it's worth it for me to do that even though I froze my credit.

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TechRepublic's Karen Roby with Frank Abagnale.

I don't write a lot of checks in today's environment. If I went into Walgreens and wrote a check, I'd have to hand the clerk the check, but on the check is my name, address, and phone number and my bank's name and address. Also on there is my account number at my bank, my routing number into my account, my signature on the signature card at the bank, and then the clerk has written down my driver's license number and my date of birth on the check. 

"The best move today is to basically just freeze your credit. This way no one can see your credit without your permission. Not the government or anybody else, and that's the way it should be."  Frank Abagnale

We don't get the check back. We live in truncation, so we only get an image of the check. The physical check goes out to be destroyed, but anyone could see it and could draft on my bank account, could wire money out of my account, or they could simply do an account takeover and order checks with my account number on them and write those checks.

Safest form of payment

So, I'm very leery about writing a lot of checks in today's environment. Also, I don't own a debit card. I never owned one. I've never allowed my sons to have one. I've found this out a long time ago when writing a book. I asked myself a simple question, what truly is the safest form of payment, not only in this country but in many countries around the world? And that is a credit card—Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Card. Every day of my life I spend their money. I never spend my money. My money sits in the money market account, earns interest, and it's exposed to no one. 

I go to the grocery store, and I use my credit card. I go to the dry cleaner, and I use my credit. I got on the plane to come here, and I used my credit card. I will do everything in my power to make sure no one gets my number. But if they do, and tomorrow they charge $1 million on my credit card, by federal law, my liability is zero. I have no liability.

"When you use a debit card, every time you use it, you're exposing the money in your personal account." Frank Abagnale

I don't worry when I buy something online because if I buy it, and they don't deliver it, the credit card company covers it. If I buy it, and it's broken, and they refuse to take it back, the credit card company covers it. So to me, the safest form of payment is a credit card. 

When you use a debit card, every time you use it, you're exposing the money in your personal account. Having worked every breach including Target, Home Depot, and TJ Maxx, after the post investigation every individual said, "Well no, I was in Target, but I used my Visa card, canceled it the next day, and then two days later FedEx delivered me a new card. I don't know what else happened." 

Or what about you? 

"Well I used my debit card off my credit union, and they took $3,000 directly out of my checking account. They said they were investigating, and I didn't have access to my money for three months."

And when you use your debit card, you could use it ten times a day for 20 years, you will not raise your credit score by that much. We use a credit card, and you pay the bill—even part of the bill— and you raise your score. 

So a lot of young people, unfortunately, use their debit card, and some need to because they're not good at handling money. But some use a debit card just for convenience. They graduated from college. They come to town. They go to rent an apartment, and the manager says, "Son, you have no credit. You didn't have a credit file on record. You'll need to have your parents co-sign the lease." 

"One of the best things you can do for your kids is to start teaching them to use credit at a very early age and start to build it." Frank Abagnale

Everything is based on credit.

So what I did is when my three sons got to college age, I said to them, "I'm not giving you a debit card. I've actually applied for a credit card in your name. So it's your card. Of course, you have no credit. So, I guaranteed it."

And I did this for three reasons. One, the bill comes to me every month, and I'm responsible for the bills. So if you spent a lot of time in a bar, I'm going to know that because I paid the bill. Two, I set the limit. So, it's what I think you need to spend every month on that card while you're away at school. And third, every month that I pay the bill, it goes on your credit. So by the time you get out of college, you should be looking at a credit score of about 800. You want to buy a car, buy a house, start your life off—you won't need me to co-sign a note for you. 

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Frank Abagnale

One of the best things you can do for your kids is to teach them to use credit at a very early age and start to build it. Credit is not what it was 30 years ago. Do I get the car? Do I get the house? Everything today is based on your credit. You apply for a job; they check your credit. You apply for life insurance; they check your credit. You apply for auto insurance; they check your credit. You apply for health insurance; they check your credit. Everything is based on your credit. So learning at an early age to start building good credit in your name goes a long way in helping you make it a lot easier through life.

There is no one in this country that ever signed a piece of paper that said to Equifax or Experian, "You can take all of my data, and you can sell it to whoever you want, and you can make billions of dollars doing that." 

SEE: How to become a cybersecurity pro: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

So, I fought very hard for congress to pass a law to allow you to freeze your credit. Up until September of last year, you could only freeze your credit in eight states without paying a fee. All the other states had fees attached to it, which went to the credit bureau. So it was $10 to freeze it, $15 to unfreeze it, and $10 to freeze it back again. 

There are three bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. It got very complicated. It was costly, and especially for seniors, it was very difficult to do. So, I basically was saying to Congress, "People should have the right to keep their information safe." And so they finally now allow you to freeze your credit. Everyone from 16 years old and up can freeze their credit, unfreeze their credit, refreeze it again a thousand times if they want.

So, I always tell people the best move today is to basically just freeze your credit. This way no one can see your credit without your permission — not the government or anybody else, and that's the way it should be. 

To read more download Mastermind con man behind Catch Me If You Can Talks Cybersecurity (free PDF) (TechRepublic).

Also see

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