Video: AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Teams with Frank Abagnale
Fraud expert and former con artist provides tips on how to best identify and protect yourself from scams.
Q: It's been decades since you passed bad checks and adopted false identities. How has technology changed scamming?
A: It's made it a thousand times easier. To forge checks 50 years ago, I had to have a Heidelberg printing press that cost about $1 million and required three journeymen printers to operate. Today you just open your laptop, go to somebody's corporate website and, within 15 minutes, you'll have a beautiful four-color check that's probably 10 times better than the actual checks.
Q: Are today's scammers less charming than you were?
A: There's really no such thing as a con man anymore—the well-dressed, sophisticated guy who speaks well. That's not necessary because you're conning people from thousands of miles away over a telephone or a computer. You could be in your pajamas sitting in a kitchen.
Q: What's the most ingenious scam you've seen recently?
A: One of the most popular scams is what they call account takeover. You write me a check and I simply go online to a check-printing service and order 200 checks with your account information. I might even put my own name and address on them. Most people don't reconcile their bank accounts. By your next statement, I've already written checks that have cleared your account.
Q: What about identity theft?
A: It's amazingly simple to do. The truth is, your identity already has been stolen. More than 800 million security breaches have occurred, and we have only about 320 million people in this country.
Q: So what tips do you have?
A: Do what I do. First, I shred everything, even if it's worthless, with a micro-cut shredder, which turns paper into confetti. Second, I use a service that monitors all three credit bureaus and notifies me in real time if somebody is trying to use my credit. Third, I don't write a lot of checks because if you write a check in a store, anyone who sees it along the way could order bogus checks on your account.
Q: What about your debit card?
A: I don't have one. I use only credit cards, because if somebody gets my card number and charges $1 million, my liability—by federal law—is zero. But when you use a debit card, you're exposing the money in your account. And even if you use your debit card every day for the next 25 years, it won't raise your credit score one point.
Q: What's your strategy with social media?
A: You don't want to use a photograph of yourself straight on, because there are too many devices today that can take that picture and match it online. Use a photo of yourself with a group of friends, taking part in some kind of activity. Also, never post where you were born or the full date of your birth, because those are two keys that can open your identity.
Q: Do you have regrets about your Catch Me If You Can years?
A: Yes. If I had it to do again, I would never have committed the crimes because it was very lonely being a teenager on the run and then spending five years—some of the best years of my life—in a prison. I wouldn't write that book again either. It's brought me a great deal of success and I've turned something very negative into a positive, but even with all that, it's a big burden to deal with every day of my life.
Q: What advice do you give young people?
A: People say that life is short, but it isn't short, it's very long. When you make a mistake, you have to live with it for the rest of your life. When people write about me, they usually start off with the headline "World's Greatest Con Man."
Q: How did you change your life after you left prison?
A: I have to be honest with you: When the FBI let me out of prison early to advise the agency on preventing fraud, I wasn't a changed person. I wasn't rehabilitated. But when I started working with the FBI, one of the most ethical groups of men and women in the world, I couldn't help but have some of that character rub off on me.
Q: Did anybody in particular change your life?
A: While I was on an undercover assignment in Texas, I met my wife, Kelly. I didn't have a dime to my name, and eventually I had to tell who I really was. Then I asked her to marry me, and against the wishes of her parents, she did. In November this year, we'll be married 40 years. She believed in me, she trusted me and she took me for what I was.
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Hugh Delehanty is a freelance journalist and former editor in chief with AARP Publications.