Time may have aged the face that conned millions, in a cloud of fraudulent cheques, but Frank Abagnale is as sharp and up-to-the-minute as ever on the shady world of fraud.
Abagnale, one of the world’s best known imposters, reckons that technology makes it a thousand times easier to be a conman.
“Today, I would have stolen $20 million easily. Back then, for me to produce a cheque would require a great deal of skill and time. Today, in just a few minutes, you can design a cheque on your laptop, go to a company’s website, check their logo and put it on a cheque. Capture the bank’s logo and put it on a cheque, and if you get a copy of the company’s annual report, on page three is a signature of the chairman of the board,” says Abagnale.
His smooth, charming tone that fooled bank tellers all over the world, assures me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of him in the movie Catch Me If You Can has nothing on the real Frank Abagnale story in the 1960s.
“I was 16 years old when I ran away from a broken home. The judge told me I had to choose between my mother and father (who had just divorced) and I ran away and ended up in the streets of New York City,” says Abagnale.
Out on the streets, his first task was to appear older. Abagnale altered his driver’s licence to make himself 10 years older. That was the first step to writing about $2.5 million in bad cheques before he was 21.
In this, Abagnale impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a university lecturer before being caught by the French police. The newspapers called him the Skyway Man as he used his pilot guise to fly for free on his way to paper the world with dud cheques. There was time in French and Swedish prisons before extradition to the United States, where he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison; he served four.
“When I was 26, the government offered to take me out of prison on the condition that I go work for them for the rest of my sentence, until my parole expired. I agreed and now I have spent about four decades with the FBI in Washington DC,” he says.
Abagnale is a world expert on fraud who now lectures and consults for financial institutions, corporations and government agencies around the world. He mentions Russia and China as hotspots for cybercrime.
Nigeria is also on Abagnale’s list. He talks about how Nigerian conmen have progressed.
“Twenty years ago, Nigerians had all these scams where they’d write these letters with counterfeited postage stamps and they’d send thousands of them out hoping for 1 or 2 percent response. Today there is no letters. They send out millions of emails and all they have to do is hope that less than 1 percent responds to their emails and they’re going to make millions of dollars.”
Abagnale warns that the most common Nigerian email, right now, is from the ‘internal revenue office’ stating that the recipient owes taxes that need to be paid back within five days. When the recipient calls to enquire, they inform them that they can pay immediately using their credit cards, hoping people will hand over their numbers.
”When one thing wears out and people get used to that, they just come up with another idea,” says Abagnale.
Even Facebook and Twitter can be tools in cybercrime.
“If you’re on Facebook and you display when you were born and have a portrait style picture of yourself, I’m 98% [on my way to] stealing your identity. There’s technology called PittPatt which allows me to take your picture at the airport and in 7.5 seconds I’ll be at your Facebook page through facial recognition from the photo on your Facebook. Now if we have it, criminals have that technology as well,” says Abagnale.
With all the information criminals can find on Facebook alone, it would be wise to play it safe, he says.
According to Abagnale, it’s wiser to alter your date of birth slightly on social media platforms.
“I would never put a straight photograph of myself on social media. I’d post a picture of me with a group of friends or me playing tennis or volleyball or some sport activity where it’s not a straight on photograph.”
Wise words from a sharp-eyed, smooth talking, poacher turned gamekeeper.