Fraud Prevention 101

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Are You Safe?

By Privacy and Financial Crimes Expert, Robert J. Rebhan

As a part of an ongoing effort to protect SAG-AFTRA members from becoming victims of fraud, Bob Rebhan, a leading expert on fraud and identity theft, will provide helpful suggestions to members on how to protect their personal information. He will also periodically answer questions that come directly from SAG-AFTRA members via his articles. You can visit his website for more information or to contact him. We welcome Bob’s valuable expertise and appreciate his generous offer to work with the Guild to make professional actors aware of the vulnerabilities they face in a changing business environment.

Choose a Topic:

Dear Mr. Rebhan:
My neighbor is a police officer. He advised me not to sign my credit cards. He explained that if a criminal tried to use my card, an example of my signature would aide the fraudster. Is this true?

Penny S.
Westlake Village, CA

Dear Penny:
Great question. However, not such good advice. The white strip, signature panel is placed on each credit card for a good reason: for your signature, not a person who wants to impersonate you. By not signing your card, you allow someone with criminal intent to sign your name in their handwriting. Now the criminal can go out and shop with your credit card—and when signing for the merchandise—the fraudster doesn’t have to forge your signature, which is a difficult thing to do. A diligent merchant trying to protect your account by comparing the signature on your credit card to the signature on the sales receipt would be fooled.

Some people write “Check My I.D.” on the signature panel in lieu of a signature, thinking it will protect their credit card account from use by a criminal. The theory is that a merchant who observes this will ask for a driver’s license from the customer who presents the card. Unfortunately, the first thing a criminal will do upon obtaining such a card is go out and get a fake identification card to match the name on the card. This may be the first step in stealing your identity as well. Now the criminal could further complicate matters by using the false identification to open up additional credit card accounts in your name.

Your signature is a unique identifier and it is actually quite complicated to forge provided you don’t scribble it. Another myth some people buy into is that the more illegible their signature is, the harder it will be for a criminal to falsify it. It is actually the other way around. Merchants comparing scrawls will just be frustrated and assume they match. I recommend getting back to the basics. Use the same unique, legible, cursive signature every single time you sign, whether you are withdrawing money at the bank, buying a house, or dining on credit at your favorite restaurant.

Signatures are archived by banks and credit card companies. Like fingerprints, they need to be consistent, or you face the liability of being charged for the fraud committed in your good name. It would be considered negligence to sign your name differently each time you put pen to paper.

Dear Mr. Rebhan:
I was asked to place my fingerprint on the back of a check issued to me by the theatre I am currently employed with. I was told by the bank, that if I did not open an account, I had to place my fingerprint on the check to cash it at that bank. The check was drawn on that bank and the actors had been told to go to this bank and cash their checks. What are the banking rules for Florida concerning this matter of fingerprinting to cash a check? I had the same occurrence in Las Vegas, Nevada. What are the national banking rules concerning these matters?

SAG-AFTRA member

Dear SAG-AFTRA member:

Nationwide, the taking of an inkless fingerprint at the time of cashing a negotiable instrument (check) is on the increase. Some police departments are giving higher priority to check fraud investigations wherein the questionable document has a fingerprint placed on it and witnessed by the bank teller, or perhaps a store retail sales associate.

Is this legal? Yes in all states. Is this of true value to the police detective? Not necessarily.

With the introduction of “Check 21,” a new federal law enacted October 28, 2004, the original check will now be digitally imaged and destroyed within hours of the transaction by the financial institution. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the fingerprint expert to analyze the best evidence.

I get the impression you are concerned about the privacy issue. I also felt that way when this practice started a few years ago. In my opinion though, you should not worry about the practice. The image will not go into a law enforcement database. However, on the upside, if someone steals your check from the mail and attempts to impersonate you, the thief’s print will be examined, and even though it may not be enough to convict, it could possibly point a finger at the culprit.

What about those department store credit cards? The discount they offer you is so tempting.

Think twice before accepting a department store sales associate’s offer of a new credit card, which will automatically save you ten percent on your purchase that day. The more credit card accounts you have open, the lower your credit score. And, more important, the purchases will probably wind up costing more money than you saved because you will be making minimum payments on the purchases at the store’s higher interest rate.

Robert J. Rebhan

ROBERT J. REBHAN is a former detective sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department. He has lectured on behalf of the credit card industry for the last 18 years. Mr. Rebhan coordinated a fraud-prevention training program for the American Express Company, specializing in point-of-sale fraud control and merchant fraud awareness.

In his campaign against fraud, Mr. Rebhan has worked closely with the California State Assembly and the Los Angeles City Council. As an advocate for privacy and financial security, he has proposed municipal code and legislative changes regarding consumer and business fraud prevention efforts. He is a member of the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators and the Electronic Crimes Task Force led by the United States Secret Service. Mr. Rebhan's is regarded as a leading expert, and his extraordinary knowledge makes him one of the country’s most requested speakers.