Frank Abagnale was once one of the world’s most notorious con men, impersonating everyone from doctors to airline pilots while committing financial fraud. But in the over four decades since his arrest at 22, he’s reinvented himself as the world’s foremost expert on how ordinary people can avoid being scammed and how law enforcement can catch criminals intent on ripping people off for their hard-earned money; Abagnale has worked closely with the FBI training agents on how to combat common scams and capture scam artists. In 2002, Abagnale was immortalized by Steven Spielberg in the film Catch Me If You Can, based on his memoir of the same name. Worth caught up with Abagnale before the publication of his latest book, Scam Me If You Can, on August 27. That book is the result of five years of work developing an educational program focused on fraud prevention, particularly for the elderly, for the AARP (Abagnale is donating the advance and proceeds from the book to the organization). Here’s what he had to say about avoiding the high-tech scams of the 21st century.
Q: How prevalent is fraud against individuals?
A: Thirty-seven billion dollars are stolen from seniors and elderly individuals every year. Every day 10,000 Americans turn 65. I’m 71 myself. We’ve had two retired FBI directors who have been scammed. Sometimes seniors get scammed, and they lose $100,000, and they don’t want to tell anyone because they’re afraid of losing their independence, and no one finds out about it.
Are scams more prevalent now than in the past? Is technology a factor?
We’ve seen a tremendous increase in romance scams. In 2015, it was $33 million. In 2018, it was up to $143 million.
What’s a romance scam?
Typically, there’s someone in their 70s, they’ve lost their husband, they’re very lonely, and they meet someone on the internet who seems like a very nice gentleman. Then it turns into phone calls, and these things go on for nine months or a year, but they’ve never met the person. Then the person says, “Hey Bob, why don’t you come and see me on a weekend” or something. Well, the problem is, Bob says “I have to have this operation and it’s $35,000, and if I don’t have the operation, it may cost me my life.” In this particular case, this woman gave this gentleman over $150,000, and it turned out this man was in Greece, didn’t have a passport, and had never been to America.
How do you spot a scam?
Every scam has two red flags. At some point, I’m either going to ask you for either personal information like your Social Security number, date of birth or bank account number, or I’m simply going to ask you to send me money. The moment they start asking you for money or personal information, you need to stop.
That seems suspicious on its face. Why do people fall for it?
The majority of people are honest, and they don’t have a deceptive mind. When they see “Ft. Lauderdale Police Department” on the phone, they assume it’s the police department, even though caller ID is the easiest thing to manipulate.
How do scammers find their marks?
They go first to social media where you told them your wife’s name and your children’s birthday and where you’re going for vacation. This gives the scam so much credibility.
So this is enabled by technology, but really is just old-fashioned research.
In social engineering, there is no technology. And there will never be a technology, including AI, that will beat social engineering. I did it 50 years ago with only a phone.
Who’s most at risk?
It depends on the scam. In identity theft, if you go to the dark web, and you are about to purchase the identity of a 62-year-old man who is a multi-millionaire, there would be a price set on that information. If you go down the page to a 14-year-old boy who has zero assets, that actually sells for a lot more money. You can become that child for a long period of time before anyone knows that you stole their identity. They can resell it and resell it over and over.
Do high net-worth individuals face specific threats?
If you were really going after a wealthy person to get a lot of money, you would put a lot more money and effort into it. You establish yourself as somebody you’re not. You make people believe you’re part of a very wealthy family, which gets you access to places where people who have a lot of money go, and you start to meet people. Time is no problem. It takes a long time to establish all these identities. It can go on for a year or two years.
Then people say, “Wow, this guy is very wealthy and influential, and he’s a friend of mine.” And then one day you start saying to them, “I’m involved in this big investment, and the return is going to be amazing.” And then you basically hook them, because they believe you to be somebody you are not.
This sounds a lot like how Bernie Madoff operated.
Madoff’s whole thing was based on that he had people he took money from, and then he also had the money accessible to them at any time, and they also became his salespeople. They said, “He’s incredible, and I get a 33 percent return on money, and if I call him on a Monday morning and say I need a million bucks, it’s in there by noon.”
We have to bring ethics and character back into our homes and schools and universities, and certainly into our workplaces.
So what needs to be done?
These kinds of crimes only get easier because technology breeds crime. I’ve been training two generations of FBI agents, and education is the most powerful tool for fighting crime. In this day and age, you have to be a little smarter an investor, and a little smarter business person and a little smarter consumer.
We live in an extremely unethical society. We don’t teach ethics at home, and we don’t teach ethics at school, because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. I have three sons and only the one who went to law school had a course on ethics. For a Fortune 500 company, if you look at their annual report, ethics is on the last page.
I know it sounds simplistic, but we have to bring ethics and character back into our homes and schools and universities, and certainly into our workplaces. This has nothing to do with religion. This only has to do with the difference between right and wrong. And there’s never been so much greed. If you look at Enron and Tyco—all these things—it’s three men in their 60s sitting around a table saying, “We made $50 million,” and no one knows about it. They’re saying, “How do we make the next $50 million?”
Frank Abagnale’s latest book, Scam Me If You Can, is available August 27 (Portfolio Penguin, $19, 352 pages).