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Former Thief, Subject of 'Catch Me' Movie, Gives Tips on Preventing Crime

INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) -- Frank Abagnale Jr., a thief turned consultant, dropped identity theft statistics Tuesday faster than a bank teller can count out bills:

- In 2000, 750,000 people reported identity theft, costing banks about $5 billion. So far in 2003 there have been 9.9 million victims, costing banks $47 billion and consumers $5 billion.

- Of the $19 billion in checks that were counterfeited, altered or forged in 2002, the imprisonment rate was only 2 percent. Between 1988 and 1998, financial institutions recovered less than 5 percent of court-ordered restitution.

- It costs about $6,000 to buy the office equipment needed to become a skilled forger.

"Of course, it doesn't cost a forger anything. He pays by check," Abagnale told an audience of about 300 during an identity crime seminar at West Virginia State College. The seminar for law enforcement, businesses, criminal justice students and the public was sponsored by the U.S. attorneys of the southern and northern districts of West Virginia.

"We see identity theft just exploding. It's something we're putting a renewed emphasis on," said U.S. Attorney Kasey Warner, whose southern district office in Charleston handled 10 cases in a recent three-month period.

"It can happen to you. It will happen to you eventually," Warner said.

Technology is to thank for that, Abagnale said. It used to take weeks for criminals to steal someone's identity or use a dead person's name to create an ID. Now with public information available over the Internet or on CD, wire transfers and telephone banking, it can take only hours.

Printing fake money can be even easier. One youth Abagnale talked to copied only one side of a bill on a copier. He used the copies to get money out of change machines, whose optical scanners read only one side of bills.

"What I did 35 years ago as a teenager is 2000 times easier today," said Abagnale, now 55.

The subject of the movie "Catch Me If You Can," he passed $2.5 million in bad checks between the ages of 16 and 21. He spent five years in prison, then became an unpaid adviser and trainer for the FBI and now has his own consultant and anti-fraud technology company based in Tulsa, Okla., and Washington, D.C.

He gives about 60 lectures a year, all at his own expense -- his way of continuing to "pay my debt back to society."

Abagnale said identify theft is the simplest crime he has seen.

If someone has your name and address, it can take only 30 minutes to find 22 pieces of information about you on the Internet, including your Social Security number, mother's maiden name, children's names and ages and even who lives in your home.

Unless people check their bank and credit card statements and credit reports regularly, they may not know they are victims for months, if ever.

"Technology breeds crime," he said. "Until we are willing to address the issue of character, ethics, these crimes are only going to get worse. Today if I choose to do so, I can steal millions of dollars from thousands of miles away without anyone knowing I was doing so."

While thieves once used stolen credit cards, they now use identifying information to get cash loans and even mortgages.

Abagnale also provided tips to prevent check fraud, including using only gel pens. Thieves cover the signature on a stolen check, soak it in certain chemicals and end up with a blank, signed check. Gel liquids, however, cannot be removed with any known chemical.

Forgers don't even need a check.

It takes a skilled forger standing behind someone in a checkout line only eight seconds to read the information on a check that he needs, Abagnale said.

"As long as you have money in the account, I'm going to get it."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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