Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. was one of the world’s greatest con men. As a teenager in the 1960s, he papered New York with fake checks, travelled the world as an airline pilot, ran a medical ward as a pediatrician, and practiced law in the Louisiana Attorney General’s office – all without the training or degrees that are required of those jobs.
Now, Abagnale is one of the world’s foremost security experts, parlaying that cunning and guile he learned on the street to help the FBI stay one step ahead of swindlers and identity thieves. His life was famously portrayed on the Silver Screen in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” in which Abagnale was played by Leonardo Decaprio.
Here’s the film trailer:
Abagnale has spent the last 43 years working with the FBI consulting on security and fraud. On Thursday, he was in Huntsville as part of a special AARP Alabama and AARP Fraud Network event offered to help citizens avoid getting scammed. More than 1,000 people registered to take part in the free event.
According to the Consumer Sentinel Network, Alabama ranks 11th nationally for fraud committed per capita. In 2018 alone there were 33,539 fraud and related cases amounting to $9.9 million in total losses.
Thirteen percent of all fraud crimes are identity theft, which can can be credit card fraud, loan or lease fraud, tax related fraud, or other kinds. The 50-69 age group is the most likely to be susceptible to fraud, as it makes up a full 36 percent of all cases.
Abagnale sat down with the “In the Weeds” podcast to talk about his work with the FBI, his message to those coming to the Huntsville event, and his extraordinary life.
Incidentally, Mr. Abagnale himself is a podcaster. He co-hosts a podcast sponsored by AARP called “The Perfect Scam,” which I recommend listening to both for good advice about avoiding fraud but also the entertaining stories. The podcast is available at AARP.org/ThePerfectScam.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview:
Todd Stacy: Bring me into the criminal mind. You have committed crimes. Now, you have spent a career fighting crimes. You’ve been undercover, which I found really fascinating… What is one fundamental thing about a thief… about that mindset, that would help me and help others if we knew it?
Frank Abagnale: This is the real scary part. Years ago, there was the con man… he was well dressed, well spoken, very made a great presentation. And he conned people, but there was a human element, there was the emotion. So that person felt compassion, no matter what they thought, there was some compassion in that individual. So he might have said, “I’m going to steal this guy’s money, but I’m not going to steal all of his money, because he’s an old man, I want to leave them broke.”
Today, there is no compassion because you’re dealing with someone in Jamaica and India and Russia and China, thousands of miles away. They don’t see you and you don’t see them. It’s anonymous. So, there’s no emotion, I don’t really care about the 80-year old women that I’m stealing money from because she’s just a voice on the telephone and I’m trying to get her money. As I tell people today… they say, “how do you deal with crime today, after 40 years, because when you did it, it was so much different?” I’ve had to learn the different ways they used to commit the crime, but the criminal mind is stayed the same. The only differences today is the method of committing the crime.
As I explain to people all the time, there is no technology, there never will be any technology, including AI, that can defeat social engineering. You only defeat it through education, you have to educate people that they’re being socially engineered. So, a call center giving away information to me or the guy that I was able to talk into where do I get the uniform over a telephone 50 years ago, is the same thing today. And unless you educate those people on how not to be socially engineered, recognize social engineering, that human element will always work no matter how much technology.
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