Before his arrest in 1969, elusive confidence man Frank Abagnale crisscrossed the globe posing as a pediatrician, airline pilot, attorney, and college professor while passing $2.5 million in bad checks in every U.S. state and 26 countries. So prolific was his forgery spree that it inspired the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, in which Leonardo DiCaprio played Abagnale (and Tom Hanks the FBI agent pursuing him).
After five years in prison, Abagnale was released on the condition that he help the feds combat the very crimes he once perpetrated. In the more than three decades since, Abagnale's fraud prevention programs have been used by more than 14,000 corporations, law enforcement agencies, and financial institutions. Today, he is considered a leading authority on secure documents and how to combat embezzlement and forgery.
Abagnale recently spoke with U.S. News about how consumers can protect themselves from check fraud. He offered five specific tips:
1. Write checks sparingly: "I'll be very honest with you—I've made a lot of money designing checks for different corporations and designing technology that goes in checks. But I personally write very few checks. Here's the reason: If I write a check at Walgreens or CVS, I'm leaving that check behind with the clerk. And on that check is my name, address, phone number, my bank's name and address, my bank account number, routing number, and my signature. And if that store clerk writes down my driver's license on the front of the check, in nine states—including the one I live in—that's my Social Security number, too. Then, next to it he writes my date of birth.
"Well, I don't get that check back. So I don't know if CVS destroyed the check, if they put it in a warehouse for seven days or 30 days. What I do know is that anyone who sees the front of that check has more than enough information to draft on my bank account. So I don't like writing checks. And I know you have to write checks sometimes—to pay your credit card bill, to pay your mortgage—that's fine. But a guy that comes up and sells you something at your house—don't write him a check, because you are giving him a tool, and you don't want to be doing that."
2. Be vigilant during tax time: "We just had tax time. That's another very popular time for check forgers because 90 percent of the people who pay their taxes and owe money make the check payable to the IRS, because that's what the IRS says. Well, [fraudsters] steal that check out of the mailbox, modify the payee, and deposit it."
3. Use only secured mailboxes: "Every day, unfortunately, a lot of people write a check to pay their utilities, and they take it outside in front of their house and put it in their mailbox and put the flag up. That's like putting the flag up [for fraudsters] to come get my mail. I would never do that in today's environment. If you have your bills, take them to the mailbox in the post office if you can, or drop them in a secured mailbox."
4. Treat your checkbook like cash: "It's also important to lock your checks up in a safe place. Some people leave them in the glove box of their car. They go and they park [their car] in the valet with the glove box open. [Fraudsters] are always looking in there for credit cards, gas cards, and people's receipts with statements on them. If they find a checkbook sitting in there, they are going to take the last check from the book, and by the time you ever get to that check or realize it's missing, they're gone. So you need to treat your checkbook as you would cash and keep it in a safe place."
5. Balance your checkbook each month: "It is very, very important—and I cannot overemphasize this—to make sure that you reconcile [your checking account statement]. About 51 percent of Americans do not reconcile their bank statement—they don't even open it. Banks love this because we have a law in the United States called Article 3, Section 406 of the Uniform Commercial Code. It says that you have 30 days from receipt of your statement to notify the bank of any discrepancies that may appear on your statement. If you don't do that, then the bank has no liability to pay you.
"If you go in to the bank three months later and say, 'Hey, I was overdrawn,' the first thing they are going to say is, 'Where is your bank statement?' You say, 'Oh, well, I don't open it.' They will say, 'Oh, well, sorry, we're not paying you.' So it is very important to stay one step up by simply always making sure that you reconcile, so at least you can go back to the bank and say, 'Look, I found a forged check.'