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Robert Shaffery '72

Identity Crisis

Alumnus Robert Shaffery educates communities on how to protect themselves against one of today's most prevalent crimes.

Becker Alum_Robert ShafferyRobert Shaffery '72 shares some startling statistics: Every three seconds someone in this country has his identity stolen. Typically, it takes about 370 days before you know that it has happened to you.

“You can only imagine the extent of damage that can happen in more than a year's time,” says Shaffery. “People think it happens right away, and sometimes it does. You get your credit card stolen, notice unauthorized charges on your bill, report it, pay the $50 that you're liable for, and think you're done. But if they've entered into your life at all, if they have your driver's license or social security number, it's unbelievable.”

Shaffery, an expert lecturer on check fraud and identity theft, says often victims of identity theft don't know that it has happened until long after because the thieves just record the information and wait. Consider a check written to the IRS, for example. The IRS requires that you put your social security number on your check, and 35 sets of hands touch that check from the time it is written until the time it gets back to you, he explains.

“Nobody needs to steal it. All they need to do is look at it, write the number down, and let it keep going through the system. It's almost impossible to get caught, and they are sold for about $100 a piece.”

Inside criminal minds  You could say Shaffery has learned about this from the best. Around 1980, the printing company he worked for secured a large check contract with American Express. Check fraud was becoming an issue, and part of the contract included addressing ways to counteract. So his company hired security consultant Frank Abignale Jr., just a few years out of prison, to give presentations on the topic. Abagnale, portrayed in the film “Catch Me If You Can,” is notorious for his history as a check forger, impostor and escape artist. In the 1960s he successfully passed $4 million worth of forged checks across 26 countries over the course of five years, starting when he was only 17 years old. In the process, he assumed many identities including those of an airline pilot, a doctor, a prison inspector and a lawyer.

Shaffery's sales background afforded him many opportunities to do presentations, which he always enjoyed. He attended many of Abagnale's seminars and over time absorbed a good understanding of the topic matter.

“The more that I watched him, the more I critiqued him, and I began to develop my own style,” says Shaffery, who was soon tapped to peddle similar presentations to smaller audiences, while Abagnale addressed the larger ones. Eventually, Shaffery began presenting these seminars to larger audiences, and his company ended their contract with Abagnale.

Later on, Shaffery went to work for Moore Business Forms, now RR Donnelly, which was, at the time, the largest printing company in the country. “I started taking the show on the road and my reputation grew by one organization at a time,” he says, when Moore started flying him around the country to troubleshoot problems that some of their large financial accounts were having with forgery, fraud and counterfeiting.

Although his current position as vice president of sales at Dupli Envelope & Graphics does not require that he give these types of presentations, Shaffery continues to lecture and serve on panels around the country, often alongside experts from the FBI and Secret Service, to educate others about fraud and its prevention.

It can happen to you  Technology has had a tremendous impact on the rise of identity theft, notes Shaffery. “Think about facebook for a second. If facebook was a country, it would be the fourth largest country in the world. And yet, your 15 year old is on facebook feeding out information all over the place. Is there any wonder how we wind up having a problem?”

Although technology is certainly a factor, especially with so many people having access to it at such an early age, there are also hundreds of low tech ways for thieves to get their hands on your information.

“It's all old systems. Credit card companies are printing envelopes that still ask customers to write their account numbers on their checks, but they don't mean it,” he laughs. “The people in security at accounts such as American Express would rather be dead than make a statement like that, but since the 1980s, no one ever told the guy doing the envelopes to stop asking customers to put that information on it.”

“In identity theft, the problem really comes from the fact that people don't believe it can happen to them. And that's the exact type of individual that the person who is stealing identities is looking for,” he warns. Shaffery cites many ways that identity theft can happen, and the “schemes” aren't that complicated. It's as simple as reciting your social security number out loud to someone you trust, or dumping the receipts in your purse into a trash can.

To prepare for his fraud demonstrations, one of the things he does beforehand is pick up the trash around ATM machines throughout the city that he is presenting in. He later uses the collection to wake up audiences to the dangers of seemingly innocent habits. The items he unearths often have social security or account numbers on them. In one case, Shaffery found enough information in one trash can to trace back the trail of a woman for nine days, because she stood in a lobby of a bank and emptied unwanted receipts from her pocketbook while waiting in line for the next-available teller.

“What I'm demonstrating is how easy it is to get a hold of this information,” he says.

Several years ago, when Shaffery was in Saratoga, he found a wallet containing $104, a driver's license, a health-care card with a social security number on it and nine credit cards. He called the owner and left several messages explaining that he had the wallet and would like to return it, but the owner never called him back. Finally, he leaves it with the police.

“I'm curious about how on the ball they are,” explains Shaffery. “So I say, ‘Let me take a picture of everything just in case there are any issues,' and the officer allows me to use my cell phone to take a photo of everything laid out on the table. And then I say, ‘Let me just get a picture of the back of everything' and the officer says, ‘Okay, good idea.' So I take a photo of the back of all the credit cards.”

“Now I've got his American Express, I've got his Visa card, all kinds of information on him including account numbers and even the three-digit security codes from the back of his credit cards, and his driver's license. I had everything I needed to ruin this guy's life forever, and even the police did not realize it.”

Creating awareness  “If you are intending to rip someone off, stealing an identity is an incredibly easy thing to do,” asserts Shaffery, who has written a 60-page pamphlet on what to watch out for. The brochure also walks victims of identity theft through what to do to fix it. Of course, he says, it's a whole lot easier to safeguard against it.

In this day and age, Shaffery is surprised at the number of people who still carry their social security card in their wallet. “That is total suicide,” he says. Moreover, he cannot believe the number of people who still don't own a shredder. “And if you can't shred it, then flush it,” he says. The best way to dispose of an old credit card is to cut out the account number, chop it in tiny pieces, wrap it in tissue, and flush it down the toilet.

“It's the same idea as shredding it. If you think cutting up a credit card and tossing it in the trash is enough, you're wrong. All you've accomplished is making a jigsaw puzzle…a very easy puzzle for someone to put back together.”

Never carry your social security card. Never recite your social security number to anyone and be careful where you jot it down and who you give it to. Always ask the person requesting it why they need it. Shaffery also warns against mailing your bills from your home mailbox (the little flag that signals to the postman, also flags an easy target for identity thieves) and using your birth date for pin codes and passwords.

“You wouldn't believe how many people use their birth date as the password on their garage door opener. The same birth date that's sitting on your license that you handed the cashier at the grocery store, the same birth date that you wouldn't think twice about giving anybody who asks, ‘Hey, when's your birthday?'”

Shaffery advises finding a set of ingrained numbers that do not have anything to do with anything really important to use for passwords and pin codes. If you need to choose a birth date, choose one from a person who doesn't live with you, like a brother or an aunt. Avoid using your mother's maiden name for security purposes, especially if it is part of your own hyphenated name. Be sure to password-protect your Blackberry, especially if you keep important information in it. When you go on vacation, thin the credit cards from your wallet, and take photocopies of what you take with you to leave behind with someone you trust. And check your credit report at least once per year.

“It's a very fixable problem if you can make people aware of what they can do to safeguard themselves. And you can't assume that everyone is honest. You need to always be on your guard,” says Shaffery, who developed a 20-question quiz to help people measure how well they have safeguarded themselves against identity left. “The bonus question: If you've misrepresented yourself on any one of these questions, add 21 points to your score,” he says,”because the world lives in denial. ‘It could never happen to me.'”

By Tammy Griffin-Kumpey 
Photo by Edd Cote