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Ex-Scammer of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ Fame Warns of Virus-Related Fraud

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The fraudsters are “coming out of the woodwork.” Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic is “a win-win-win” for them, Frank Abagnale, the famous fraudster-turned-FBI consultant, tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview. His youth as a professional imposter and check forger inspired the film “Catch Me If You Can” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Abagnale, an authority on fraud, forgery and cybersecurity, 71, stresses that under stay-at-home orders, people — fearful and anxious amidst the outbreak and financial fallout — are more vulnerable to scammers.

In fact, he cautions that “during the next several weeks, more than ever in your life,” Americans must be super-careful to avoid being conned. That’s when the first economic impact payments under the Coronavirus Relief, Aid and Economic Security (CARES) Act are planned to be dispersed to taxpayers.

The danger, he warns, is that fraudsters will call, email or text insisting they need an individual’s address and personal information so they can send them a check.

Further: Beware of requests for donations that claim to help people with COVID-19 and for money for claimed treatments and cures. There are also scammers claiming to represent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and phony experts saying they have breakthrough information about the virus, Abagnale says.

During his 40-plus years as a consultant to the FBI, he never saw a scam whose only purpose was to cause physical harm — until now. Many COVID-19 scams are solely “malicious” and make no requests for money, says Abagnale, who details one in the interview.

Starting in 1969, the Westchester, New York, native served five years in prison for posing as an airline pilot, doctor, attorney, FBI agent and more, and for cashing $2.5 million in forged checks in 27 countries. He’d been sentenced to 12 years, but his imprisonment was reduced when he accepted an offer to be an unpaid consultant to the FBI.

Later, he founded Abagnale & Associates, based in Washington, D.C., which has advised about fraud prevention to more than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies. Clients include the American Bankers Association, Experian, LexisNexis, Marriott, Trusona and Visa.

According to AARP’s April 2020 Bulletin, scamming has become “a big international industry,” and technology is “the fraudster’s friend.”

To be sure, in the interview, Abagnale, AARP’s fraud watch ambassador and co-host of its podcast, “The Perfect Scam,” discusses how today’s easy-to-use technology enables scammers.

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Abagnale, who last year published “Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists” (Penguin Random House-AARP-2019).

In our conversation, he revealed the top two red flags for spotting scams, how financial advisors can help clients avoid being scammed, how easy it is to create fake checks and how, when conning his way around the globe, “the power of a Pan Am pilot’s uniform” helped him commit fraud.

Here are highlights from the interview:

THINKADVISOR: Has the incidence of scams increased during the coronavirus pandemic?

FRANK ABAGNALE: Scammers are coming out of the woodwork with all kinds of scams because amid our fears of coronavirus, the hard part of their work has been done for them: They always use headlines as opportunities to steal money or sensitive personal information. Hundreds of approaches are being used.

Are people more vulnerable to scammers at this time?

Yes. Now scammers have targets who normally wouldn’t be at home that are answering their phones. So for the scammer, it’s a win-win-win because they know that 99% of the time someone will be at the residence they call.

Any other reason that people are vulnerable targets right now?

They’re very scared, fearful. So when they hear some of these scams, unless they know better, they may end up falling for them. A lot of smart people just hang up. But scammers know that if they make 1,000 calls, a percentage of people will fall for the scam. Their pitch is very professional sounding; they [falsely] back up things with elaborate websites — but they just make all that [stuff] up.

Is there anything unique about the scams that the pandemic has generated?

What’s different and really concerning about COVID-19 scams is that a lot of them are malicious — no money is being made from them. The regular scams I’ve seen during my whole career have always been based on: How much money can I make from scamming this person?

What’s an example of a malicious coronavirus scam?

On March 30, a letter supposedly sent from the city of Charleston, S.C., on government letterhead, went to students at the College of Charleston telling them to come to an address downtown and line up: They could be tested for a coronavirus vaccine, and they’d be given $5,000 for agreeing to take the test.

What was behind the scam?

Just getting these kids to stand in line next to each other — and they did. It’s very disconcerting to see that people would do something so malicious during a crisis like this.

What’s your advice to avoid scams right now?

During the next several weeks [when the CARES Act payments to Americans are planned to be sent out], more than ever in your life, you have to be very careful of phone calls or emails telling you to click on a site or of people trying to get information from you. They might say there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 or a place for testing.

You recently wrote in GovCon Wire that CARES money meant for citizens “… will … end up in misdirected payments to fraudsters” because to receive those payments, the IRS has proposed that many fill out online forms asking for sensitive financial information. Another reason is that the federal and state governments’ use of “antiquated” technology results in incomplete data “… sounds like fraudsters’ Christmas and birthdays have come all at once,” you say. Please elaborate.

I think the government will take months to send out [all] those checks. One reason is that the IRS has had a 20% reduction in their budget over the last 10 years — they’ve lost 20% of their personnel. That, and the use of outdated computer systems brings in the whole issue of fraud.

Many coronavirus scams try to dupe people out of money. How should people avoid those and other such swindles?

Look out for the two red flags: asking you to give the scammers money — and to do so immediately, such as “Wire me the money” or “Give me your credit card number on the phone.” The other red flag: asking for personal information: “What’s your Social Security number? Where do you bank? What’s your date of birth?” You don’t want to give that out because you didn’t solicit the call or email — so you don’t know who’s on the other end.

What can financial advisors do to prevent clients from being scammed?

Tell them that if they get any calls asking them to make an investment or buy a certain stock [or other requests for money and information], to phone them to discuss it. Tell clients: “I believe that’s a scam, and I can give you advice. You trust me to handle your money. You trust me to give you investment advice. Please trust me to tell you if what someone is asking you to do is a scam.”

Today, there’s loads of information about people easily found on databases. This must really help scammers, right?

We’re living in such an information world — companies want to be suppliers of information, and they put it on the internet. You don’t know if a scammer that’s contacting you is sitting in Russia, India, Jamaica or wherever. Also, we do harm to ourselves by getting on Facebook and other social media and telling people so many personal things.

Are romance scams still on the rise?

They have more than doubled in the last couple of years [reported losses increased more than fourfold between 2015 and 2018, according to Federal Trade Commission]. Sometimes the man or woman convinces their [target] to be a mule for them.

How do they do that?

I know of one gentleman, 70 years old and in a wheelchair, who met a young girl online and got very involved with her over the internet. After a while, she asked him for “a huge favor”: Would he fly to Barcelona — first class, all expenses paid — to pick up a package for her? She said it was “very sensitive information about a real estate deal and that the man was “the only person” she trusted.

What happened?

He went to Barcelona and picked up the package. Coming back, Customs in Spain opened the package, and there were drugs in it. He spent about six months in a Spanish jail until his son finally convinced the government that he was a victim of a romance scam, and he finally came home.

What should the man have done when asked to pick up that package?

Used his common sense or confided in someone. But often scammers say, “Don’t tell anybody. This is a very big secret. That’s why I’m having you do it.”

How does the incidence of scams today compare to the 1960s, when you were conning people?

Crime is getting easier all the time. I’m sure that if I were doing now what I did 50 years ago, I’d be making billions of dollars because of all the technology and simple ways there are to get so much information. All that didn’t exist when I was 16 or 18 years old.

You’ve said that to forge checks back then, you required and used a sophisticated printing press. What’s needed now?

It took me eight months to learn how to operate that press. Today, you just sit down at a laptop and go to, say, an airline website to capture their corporate logo in color. You put it up on the left-hand corner of the check you’ve diagrammed out on your screen. You call the airlines and find out where they bank, and they’ll readily tell you. [You type that in.] So now you’ve made a check in about 15 minutes. You have a color printer in your house and can start printing out checks right away.

Incidentally, how did you get access to that big, complicated printing press?

I dated a girl who lived in Southern France, who thought I was a Pan Am pilot on furlough. Her dad owned a small printing shop with a big Heidelberg press and did a lot of color printing. I told him I’d like to work in his shop; he said OK, and I learned how to operate the press. When he went on vacation, I asked if I could continue to work there so he didn’t have to close the shop. That’s how I got access to the press.

How did you create checks when you first started to pass forged ones at 16? 

I’d go to a stationery store and buy a book of blank checks. Then, on an IBM [electric] typewriter, I’d type in the name of a bank — like, Chase Manhattan — over and over again so it was very black and looked printed. Next, I put some Pan Am decals on the checks. They looked horrible and ridiculous. When I think about those checks: Who would ever cash them today!

But banks did cash them back then. Why? 

I had the power of a Pan Am pilot’s uniform. I was smart enough to know that if I went into [a bank] in a pair of jeans, they’d say no. But if I went in with a pilot’s uniform on and had a phony ID card, they wouldn’t pay attention to the check — they’d only pay attention to me.

Does anything surprise you about the high level of scamming today?

What’s so ironic is that 50 years ago, if you had said, “Frank, all the stuff you’re doing will be hundreds and hundreds of times easier by the time you’re 70, I would have said, “You’re crazy! By then, they’ll have figured out how not to have these things happen and how to keep people protected from them.” But it’s been the opposite — it’s become easier.

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