To outwit con artists, take advice from one of the most famous people who used to be one. “Think like a predator,” counsels Frank Abagnale, whose life as a professional imposter and conman from ages 16 to 21 inspired the film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Abagnale knows all too well how scammers operate.
In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, the former fraudster, 71, reveals some M.O.s and tells how to avoid being had.
The consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than 43 years also explains how the biggest scam of all time, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, operated, while evincing astonishment that the disgraced financier admitted wrongdoing instead of “play[ing] it [the scam] to the end.” That’s not what he’d have done, Abagnale allows.
In the interview, the cybersecurity expert forecasts a few ominous trends, such as cyberattack warfare, which he calls “the wave of the future.”
“I’m sure the U.S. has the power to shut off all the traffic lights in Beijing tomorrow if they want to,” he argues.
Likewise, he “guarantee [s]” that a potential cyberattack could shut down America’s entire banking system.
In his new book, “Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists” (Penguin Random House-AARP-Aug. 27), Abagnale explains how new, remarkably useful technologies have, at the same time, made scams and cybercrime easier to execute. All proceeds from the book go to AARP, who commissioned him to write it.
Punished for posing as an airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, FBI agent and more, and for cashing $2.5 million in forged checks in 27 countries, Abagnale served four years of a 12-year jail sentence.
Imprisonment was reduced by his becoming an unpaid consultant to the FBI. Later, he opened Abagnale & Associates, which has advised on fraud prevention to more than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies. Clients include the American Bankers Association, Experian, Marriott Hotels and Visa.
ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed AARP’s Fraud Watch Network ambassador, on the phone from his office in Washington, D.C. He noted that, surprisingly, more millennials than seniors are victims of scams, though, unsurprisingly, seniors lose more money.
“As I always remind people — including myself — anybody can be scammed,” Abagnale says. Here are highlights of our conversation:
THINKADVISOR: A survey by Putnam Investments found that 98% of financial advisors use LinkedIn for personal and business purposes. Do scammers target people on LinkedIn?
FRANK ABAGNALE: LinkedIn is just another link in how scammers get information about you. Let’s say your profile indicates that you graduated from New York University. I go to that website for the year you graduated, look at the yearbook and see who you befriended. Maybe you married a girl you met there; so I can see your wife’s maiden name. Every piece of information leads to another piece of information.
Has the internet increased the amount and frequency of scams?
It’s made scams so easy, plus it’s so global. Most of the scams I wrote about involve some guy sitting in his pajamas sipping a cup of coffee at his laptop in his kitchen in Moscow. But we don’t have the ability to go there and arrest the guy, charge him with a crime and bring him back to the U.S. That’s why you have to be a smarter consumer and wiser business person today.
So “think like a predator,” you recommend. Please explain.
In every scam, no matter how sophisticated or amateurish, there are two red flags: One, the scammer says they need the money immediately; two, they ask for personal information, like your Social Security number and date of birth. If you learn these red flags and act on them, you’ll never be scammed.
“Practice defensive computing,” you also advise. What’s that?
If you get a phone call or see a popup on your computer screen that says, “This is Microsoft. We’ve detected some malware. Call this number, and we can clear it up,” when you call, it’s not Microsoft but some boiler room in Miami. Microsoft doesn’t send popups or make calls like that.
But folks are so gullible.
People are basically honest; so they don’t have a defensive mind and easily fall for these things.
You write about cyber fraud’s becoming an important part of the weaponry systems of “rogue nations” but that “governments like our own” use cyberattacks too. The U.S., for example, reportedly employed a malicious virus to target and destroy a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2010, you say. Please elaborate.
This is a different type of warfare from sending missiles and planes and ships: You screw up [enemies’] intelligence programs. We [generally] rely on computers to operate every piece of equipment. So you leave yourself open to having someone getting into that system, manipulating it and causing harm — no matter which side you’re on.
There’s little reported on the U.S. waging cyberwarfare.
Right – they’re not going to make that real public unless it’s after the fact when we’re accused of getting into some system. But I’m sure the government has the power to shut off all the traffic lights in Beijing tomorrow if they want to. This is the wave of the future. We rely too much on computers, and they’re all hooked together through the Internet. That’s not a good thing.
What do you predict for individuals or groups committing evil acts with technology?