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How to protect yourself from scams

Frank Abagnale, considered one of the world's best experts in fraud prevention, offered scam-protection tips Thursday. Abagnale's early life as a con artist was made famous in the movie "Catch Me If You Can." A teacher at the FBI Academy and an author, he now tours the country with AARP's Fraud Watch Network. (BONNIE WASHUK/SUN JOURNAL)

PORTLAND (Sun Journal) -- Don't use a debit card.

"They're the worst financial tool ever given to American consumers," said fraud expert Frank Abagnale, who visited Maine on Thursday to help people protect themselves from fraud.

And if you don't know who's calling, don't answer the phone, said Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

The two appeared on "Maine Calling" on Thursday in Portland. Abagnale, a reformed con artist who has taught at the FBI Academy, gave more advice during interviews as part of AARP's Fraud Watch Network.

Abagnale is among the world's best identity theft and fraud experts. His scamming in his early years was depicted in the movie, "Catch Me If You Can" starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

When he was between 16 and 21, he successfully posed as an airline pilot, a lawyer and a doctor. He flew all over the world posing as a pilot while cashing fake Pan Am checks. He was eventually arrested in France, jailed there, then imprisoned in Sweden, then the United States.

One of his release conditions was that he work with the FBI to help them fight fraud. He's been doing that for 41 years and has written books on scams. Now nearly 69, he tours the country with AARP's Fraud Watch Network.

Advice he shares:

  • Debit cards aren't safe. The safest way to pay for anything is with a credit card: Visa, MasterCard or American Express. He is careful to ensure no one gets his credit card numbers, "but if tomorrow they did, and they charged $1 million, by federal law my liability is zero."

He pays off his credit card every month, so he's building good credit. But with debit cards, "every time you reach for your debit card, you're exposing the money in your bank account."

When breeches occur, people who use credit cards don't lose money; they only had to cancel their cards and get new ones, he said. People who used debit cards lost money in their bank accounts.

  • Whenever you get a phone call or email saying you owe someone money, there's a problem with your account or you need to update your Amazon or Netflix account and please fill out your credit card and Social Security numbers, "verify, verify, verify," Abagnale said. Contact the vendor or agency on your own. "It only takes a minute." Often it's a scam.

Lots of fraud in Maine happens after a phone call, AG Mills said. Scammers target senior citizens, who have land lines and tend to answer their phones. Don't answer, Mills said.

"It's dangerous to pick up the phone and get someone you don't know," Mills said. "Even if you know it's a scam, don't play along. Don't press 1. Don't press any numbers. Hang up, hang up, hang up!"

  • Abagnale shreds everything, not only credit card applications that come in the mail but catalogues. He uses a "micro cut" shredder that turns paper into the size of rice.

Even catalogues should be shredded because your name and address, a bar code, a source code and an ID number are on them. "That's enough for me to steal your identity," Abagnale said. "What you think is worthless is of great value to someone who knows what to do with it. Shred it."

  • Use a credit monitoring service. "I can go online 12 times a day and pull up my credit," Abagnale said. All three credit bureaus come up, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. At the top is his credit score for that day.

He can see all credit inquiries, not only those made by himself, "but insurance company, my bank, the IRS, what we call soft and hard hits. For $15 a month, that is worth it. Also, they're watching my credit for me and alerting me if anyone's attempting to use my credit."

Don't write many checks and only to trusted sources. "If I go to the drugstore and write a check, on the check is my name, address, phone number, my bank account number, my routing number into my account — that's your wiring instructions — my signature," Abagnale said. Then the clerk writes down the license number and date of birth, he said.

The physical check goes to the drugstore's warehouse where it's shred in six months. "But along the line anyone who sees that check could order checks in my name, take over my account or wire money out of my account."

Anyone can become a victim of fraud, Abagnale said, encouraging people not to be ashamed if it happens, and to get help. One good source is the Maine Attorney General's office.

"If you're worried about protecting your credit, freeze it," Abagnale said. "Then nobody's going to get it without your permission."

Maine is one of only three states where people can freeze their credit for free.

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