Frank Abagnale became famous after the release of the 2002 film Catch Me if You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. That movie brought Abagnale’s life as a conman extraordinaire to the masses.
But the movie was just a snapshot of a life devoted to preventing identity theft and similar crimes.
“I’ve been teaching at the FBI Academy for 47 years to two generations of FBI agents,” Abagnale said during a keynote presentation Thursday at the SBC Summit North America at the Meadowland Exposition Center in New Jersey. “I’ve conducted more than 3,000 seminars around the world on everything about fraud and embezzlement, forgery, counterfeiting, and many scams.”
Abagnale told a rapt audience that he lives his life based on three philosophies: prevention, “because once you lose your money, you will probably never get your money back”; verification, “because anything today can be duplicated, counterfeited, and deep faked”; and education.
“Education is the most powerful tool in fighting crime,” Abagnale said. “If I can show you how the scam works, you understand it, and you will not fall victim to that scam.”
Abagnale said he started writing about anti-theft measures in the 1980s, when there were fewer people committing that crime. But the pandemic spurred a 73% increase in identity theft and in the U.S., Abagnale said there’s a new victim “every two seconds.”
Abagnale, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, said governments aren’t immune to thieves. In 2012, someone hacked into South Carolina’s tax-revenue system and stole 3.8 million tax returns, “including mine,” Abagnale said. “They stole the entire physical return, which means your Social Security number, your wife’s Social Security number, your dependents Social Security numbers, and of course they had your earnings.”
Abagnale said the state insisted it did nothing wrong.
“My response at the time was that would be absolutely, literally, impossible,” he said. “Every single breach occurs because someone in a company did something they weren’t supposed to do or someone in that company failed.”
A few months later, the Secret Service determined that a contract employee working at South Carolina’s tax- revenue office had taken home a laptop that was opened in an unrestricted environment. The state responded by offering residents one free year of credit monitoring.
Abagnale wrote a letter to then-Gov. Nikki Haley, saying the credit monitoring was a waste of taxpayer money.
“People who steal mass data warehouse that data for three to four years before ever bringing it back to the marketplace,” he said. “So, one year of credit monitoring, two years of credit monitoring, or three years of credit monitoring were basically worthless. In the case of South Carolina, it was almost five years before it began to show up, with people having unemployment problems and a lot of them had too many credit cards filed for in their name.”
Abagnale said identity thieves probe for soft spots in homes – internet-connected devices, including cameras and remote controls – that can be hacked. They can steal personal information by listening to conversations and watching everything that happens in a home.
“We build a lot of technology in this country, but we very rarely vet technology,” Abagnale said. “We’re so quick to get to the marketplace, because of the return on investment, because we have to get the product out by Christmas. And no one stops to ask the simple question: How would someone use this technology in a negative self-serving way?
“We’re going to have to do a much better job of building security into technology and we’re going to have to stay on top of that technology constantly. There’s no foolproof system. If you believe you have a foolproof system, you’ve have failed to take into consideration the creativity of fools.”