The Art of the Steal - By Frank Abagnale


It began on a winter day with a seemingly ordinary message on an answering machine. It was from someone at the bank. Something about her new Dodge Ram pickup and the payment past due on the loan. Michelle Brown figured it was one more of those misdirected calls. Not only didn't she own a pickup, but anyone who knew her realized that there was no way she'd ever own a pickup. She had a penchant for sports cars, and she actually detested Dodges. Because her name was a common one, it was normal for her to get messages for some other Brown. In the past, she'd received calls for Mike Brown, a message looking for a Brown to pick up relatives from Hawaii who were waiting impatiently at the airport, and a call from some Uncle Brown about her horse she didn't have.

Michelle Brown was a single woman in her late twenties. She lived in southern California and worked as a credit analyst. She was cheerful and luminous, and people found her fun to be around. Friends were always telling her how she was too nice. She worked hard and was tidy with her finances. She owned fifteen credit cards, but had never been late on a single payment. Ever since she was seventeen, she had had perfect credit. It was a thing with her. She liked everything in her life to be perfect.

She returned the call. She told the bank officer that there must be a mistake; she hadn't bought a truck. The officer quickly agreed that he must have the wrong Michelle Brown. The phone numbers on the credit application weren't working, and he had gotten this number from directory assistance in the hope that it was the right person. And the application did have her address on it. To prove beyond a doubt that it was another Michelle Brown he was searching for, she told him her Social Security number. She was stunned - it was the same one that was on the application.

Alarmed, she called up the credit reporting agencies and told them that something fishy was going on. They put a fraud alert on her credit and promised to send out a report on her recent purchases. She checked with the Division of Motor Vehicles, and learned something astonishing: a duplicate driver's license had recently been issued to a Michelle Brown. Someone else was using her name, her address, her Social Security number, and her driver's license. It was as if someone was slowly erasing her identity.

When her credit report arrived, there were delinquent bills on it for thousands of dollars, including a sizable phone bill and even a bill for liposuction treatments. What was this? She'd heard about people who got crosswise with creditors, but never her. She became afraid to open her own mailbox, for fear of what new debt would be awaiting her. In time, she would learn that there was an arrest warrant out for Michelle Brown in Texas. The charge was conspiracy to sell marijuana. She had never broken a law, any law. How could she be wanted?

Someone had appropriated her identity, but who and how? She felt chained to some stranger without a face, but with her name. How dare someone steal her name! She thought chillingly about the movie The Net, in which the actress Sandra Bullock plays a computer software tester whose identity gets erased by criminals.

Her whole life was thrust into darkness. She had just started a new job, but found herself unable to concentrate on her work. She had no appetite for food. She slept fitfully, if at all. Her bright personality darkened; friends didn't recognize her. Her relationship with her boyfriend, a professional volleyball player, became strained and finally ended. He didn't understand the depth of her distress. She spent a lot of time crying.

She began to worry that the other Michelle Brown might break into her apartment in search of her passport or her checks, or who knew what else. Whenever she got home after dark, she carried a flashlight and meticulously searched through the rooms, including every closet. She was weary and angry. When she went to bed at night, she felt haunted and scared. If she heard the slightest noise, her first instinct was that the woman calling herself Michelle Brown was out there lurking in the dark, right beneath her window. She shook with fear. Who was this person who was stealing her identity? Why, of all the