HELENA – As a teenager, Frank Abagnale became a notorious con artist and forger, pursued for years by the FBI. It’s a story famously presented in the 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can,” in which he was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio.
But for more than 40 years, Abagnale has been on the other side. Today, he is a respected security consultant, advising government agencies, private businesses and the public on how to prevent fraud.
Last week, Abagnale visited Montana, on behalf of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. He shared some of his advice on avoiding scams in a presentation Thursday at the Helena Civic Center. Before the talk, he spoke with MTN’s Mike Dennison on “Face the State.”
Abagnale says scams are based on “social engineering,” the use of deception to win a victim’s trust and get them to give up information.
“There is no technology – there never will be any technology – to defeat social engineering,” he said. “You only defeat social engineering through education.”
For example, he said a criminal might casually ask when and where you were born. That information can then be used to determine the first digits of your Social Security number. If they can get hold of the last four digits, they can easily steal your identity.
Abagnale says every scam comes down to one of two red flags.
“At some point in that scam, I’m either going to ask you for information – such as your name, Social Security number, date of birth – or I’m going to ask you for money,” he said. “And when I ask you for money, it has to be immediate. You can’t say, ‘Well, let me just mail that in.’ No, it has to be right now; you have to do it this moment.”
One of the most common scams seen in Montana, as in many other states, is the “IRS scam,” in which a criminal claims to be from a government agency and says you must pay back taxes immediately or face arrest. Abagnale said it has gotten a lot of attention recently, so scammers are varying their tactics – sending an official-looking letter instead of making a call.
Abagnale said we now live in a “full-information” society. He said technology, including social media, has made it easier for criminals to access some key data.
He recommends against putting a plain, front-facing photo on a social media site, since it can be used to make a fake identification.
“And you never ever want to tell someone where you were born and your date of birth, because that’s 98 percent of me stealing your identity,” he said.
Abagnale said authorities have to deal with nearly $1 trillion in fraud every year in the U.S., and law enforcement simply doesn’t have the resources to prosecute most of it. That means there’s no substitute for educating yourself.
“We have great technology and we have great educational tools available, but if you don’t use them, then they’re worthless,” he said.
Abagnale has put additional resources about fraud and how to protect against it on his website. He also recommends calling AARP’s Fraud Watch Helpline at (877) 908-3360 if you’re concerned about a possible scam.