Former imposter Frank Abagnale offers tips on how to avoid being scammed in the age of social media
Not everyone has the story of their teenage years told in a book, movie, Broadway play and TV show, but not everyone has a story like Frank Abagnale.
Abagnale is a well-known former con man who rose to fame as part criminal, part legend and for some, cult hero. Ultimately his story became one of redemption, portrayed in Steven Spielberg's 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can." Now, he travels the country as an AARP representative, educating people on how to avoid getting scammed.
In the mid-60s, at 16, Abagnale left his New York City home when his parents divorced. That began a global journey of deception that would land him in three prisons in three countries. He spent his early 20s behind bars.
"Lost most of my youth obviously from 21 to 26 while I was in prison," he said.
Abagnale used what Spielberg called "social camouflage" to blend in to his surroundings and take advantage of people financially.
Using charm, moxie, and chutzpah, he talked his way onto commercial airline flights, posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot. He didn't actually fly Pan Am planes but used the uniform he secured from the airline's supplier and a fake ID he created to deadhead on other airlines, usually in the jump seat of the cockpit. It’s estimated he flew on 250 flights for more than a million miles in a two-year span.
Before he reached his 22nd birthday he'd forged checks totaling $2.5 million.
He passed himself off as a chief resident doctor in a Georgia hospital.
It all came crashing down when he was arrested in south France in 1969. He was incarcerated in France, Sweden and the U.S. Eventually the American government offered him a deal in 1974. If he’d work with the feds, helping them catch people committing the same types of crime he’d committed, then they’d let him out.
Abagnale and the FBI agent who spent years chasing him became and remained friends following Abagnale's capture.
Abagnale still works with the FBI, teaching agents what to look for and how to stay ahead of scammers. His lessons are aimed at five years into the future because criminals are always upping their games.
On Thursday night, as a representative of AARP, Abagnale spoke to a large crowd at a free event at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Wendy Williamson Auditorium about the dangers of financial predators.
He offered some staggering numbers. "There are losses of about $12 billion from phishing emails annually in the United States. When we track the money that's lost, we track it out to 155 foreign countries," he said.
Phishing is an attempt by scammers to extract important data from unsuspecting victims, using emails that look authentic.
While older folks comprised the majority of the audience, youngsters were in attendance too. And that's important, Abagnale said, because everyone is a potential target.
"Millennials get scammed more often than seniors do, but seniors lose more money because they have more money," he said.
The evening's talk centered on consumer-related crime. And it wasn't long before the discussion turned to social media. While Abagnale doesn't use it, he knows millions of people do and are opening themselves up to potential trouble.
The more forthcoming someone is online, the larger the target they become, he says. It's important to remember that hackers are opportunists who wait for mistakes to be made.
Abagnale says they look for open doors. “And there are open doors in your home, your business, everywhere. There are thousands of open doors. They take all that information so that the email is so credible, so real time, that you assume automatically that it's real."
According to Abagnale, $17 billion were stolen from 16.7 million U.S. victims in 2017.
Abagnale pulled off his cons during a different time. Social camouflage has moved to social media; scams are less face-to-face and more faceless.
"You're dealing with someone sitting in a kitchen with their laptop and a cup of coffee in their pajamas in Moscow. They never see you. You never see them. There is no compassion, and unfortunately, they'll take you for every penny you have," he said.
In the end, he told the audience it's about living a good life. His younger days were fun, but he says he always knew he'd be caught. He credits his wife of more than 40 years and his three children, not prison, for his rehabilitation.
Abagnale has turned down three presidential pardons. He wrote a book that was turned into a movie. Then a Broadway musical was developed, and a TV show called "White Collar" also emerged.
He's visited 40 states as an AARP representative.
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