Outsmart Con Artists: Tips from Identity Theft Expert Frank Abagnale

If you’ve seen the movie Catch Me if You Can — or read the book of the same name — you know Frank W. Abagnale successfully posed as a pilot, attorney, and doctor between the ages of 16 and 21, cashing millions in bad checks.

To an outsider, it may seem like a grand adventure. But it was criminal, nonetheless.

“I always knew I’d get caught. It was just a matter of time,” Abagnale admits today, reflecting on his prison stints, and, ironically, the 43-year career he made with the FBI as a consultant on fraud and forgery.

Abagnale came to Dallas to speak about the fraudsters who prey on senior citizens and their families. He now lectures to spread the word on con-men targeting older Americans. His hopes to shut down scammers before they can claim even one victim.

“It was about six years ago that AARP sent out a survey to their 38 million members to ask them what concerns they had,” Abagnale said.

Worries about fraud and identity theft were prevalent. After some research, the organization decided to start a Fraud Watch Network to collect data from across the nation about crimes against the elderly.

“I’ve been working with now over five years. They came to me,” Abagnale said. “They basically said ‘We’d like to help us educate our members about being victimized and to protect themselves.” Abagnale said people are basically honest, and thus do not have a deceptive mind. This is how smart people can be swindled.

“So, if the phone rings,” he said, “and the caller ID says it’s the Dallas Police Department, or it’s the US Treasury, or the IRS, or Medicare, believe that it is, from the caller ID — which is very easy to manipulate.”

Abagnale recommended ways to combat some of the online cons. It begins with someone, such as adult children, educating seniors about the methods of a scammer. “There are two red flags,” he said. “At some point, they’re either going to ask you for money or information.”

If it’s money, the scammer will do so quickly. Furnish a credit card number, buy a GreenDot card and call back with the number, ApplePay… Abagnale rattled off example after example.

And if it’s information, scammers will ask for your social security number, your date of birth, or your bank account number.

Simply hanging up and calling the fraud hotline on the back of one’s credit card is a completely appropriate response. Abagnale also noted that targeting individuals has become easier thanks to the global reach of computers. The example he used was the Yellow Pages.

In years past, all that could be gleaned from the directory was a name, address, and phone number. But now, a simple online search can reveal higher income ZIP Codes, names, birthdates, marital status, and the names of relatives linked to a targeted individual. All this makes it simpler for a scammer to build a more detailed, realistic con.

Social media makes datamining even easier, and the advent of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies have also created a new frontier for fraud. Furthermore, instead of one con man fleecing an elderly person as in days of old, the Internet makes it so a criminal can be working on defrauding a large number of people all at once — sitting in his pajamas at the kitchen table, Abagnale quipped.

“Education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime,” he said, “I’m basically saying to you, ‘Here’s your risk, and here’s what could happen.’ smart enough to go do something about it, but they have to know what the risk is.”

Added Abagnale, “If they haven’t been told that, or someone hasn’t walked them through it, or educated them about it’s very easy for anybody to fall for those scams.”

More about the AARP Fraud Watch Network can be found at aarp.org.

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