Frank Abagnale is a scam expert. His early life as a con man was the subject of the 2002 Steven Spielberg film "Catch Me If You Can." He wrote his latest book, "Scam Me If You Can," to help people protect themselves from modern-day con artists. We spoke to Abagnale about his criminal past and how to recognize when you're being scammed. The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
Most people know you as a movie character. Can you briefly connect the dots to your life now?
My life's changed. That was 50 years ago. Everything that took place in the movie took place between the ages of 16 and 21. I'm now 71. They changed very little in the movies. I ran away from home, ended up in the streets in New York. I impersonated an airline pilot for a while, a doctor, a lawyer, wrote about $2.5 million worth of bad checks.
I was arrested just once in my life at 21 by the French police. They convicted me of forgery and sent me to French prison. I was later extradited to Sweden. They convicted me of forgery and send me to Swedish prison. Then the U.S. government brought me back from Sweden to the United States and a U.S. federal judge sentenced me to 12 years in federal prison. I served four of those 12 years at a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia.
But when I was 26 years old, the government offered to take me out of prison on the condition I go to work with the federal government for the remainder of my sentence or until my parole has been completed. And I agreed. This year I'm celebrating 43 years at the FBI. I've taught at the FBI Academy for four decades. In the first 20 years I dealt a great deal with counterfeiting, forgeries and embezzlement. The last 20 years has been all about cyber.
How have scams changed since you were a con artist?
They really have not changed much at all. The only difference is I didn't have the technology that exists today. I only had one form of communication, a telephone. Today there are so many different forms of communication.
The old con artist, they're a thing of the past. People who were confidence people, they basically dealt with you on a one-on-one, so they had to be in front of you. They were well-dressed, they were well-spoken, they had a great vocabulary, they had a nice personality. And those people had a little bit of compassion because they couldn't help but get to know their victims.
The difference today, the con man is a guy in his pajamas sitting in his kitchen with a laptop and a cup of coffee in Moscow, and he never sees the victim. The victim never sees him. There is no personal reaction. Consequently, there's no emotion. So these people will take you for every single dime you have and could care less if they took your home or took all the money you have in the world.
You say it's easier than ever to become a con artist. Why?
Because we live in a way-too-much-information world. People tell us everything about them. If I go to someone's Facebook page and they tell me where they were born and their date of birth, that's all I need to do to steal their identity.
How do you know whom to trust?
You have to be a little skeptical today. You can't rely on the police. You can't rely on the bank. You can't rely on the government to protect you. You literally have to be a smarter consumer today and you have to be a smarter business person today. When I was researching all these scams to write about them in the book, the one thing that kept coming back to me through the entire research was that no matter how sophisticated the scam was, there were two red flags. At some point I'm going to ask you for money and I'm going to tell you that you have to pay me this money right away.
Is there any area of life where you're not at risk?
No. I tell people every day: Your identity has already been stolen. Look at Facebook and Marriott hotels. Equifax. Every day there's another breach. That's why you have to be a little more careful and make sure you're monitoring your identity. Because if they haven't got to you, it's just because they're dealing with billions of pieces of data and they didn't get around to using your information or they didn't think you were valuable enough.
What sets this apart from other personal finance books?
I want it to be a reference book so that if someone two years later calls you with some sweepstakes scam, you go, "You know what? I think I've heard about this. I think this could possibly be a scam."
As I found out when I wrote the book, millennials fall for more scams than elderly seniors do, but seniors lose more money to those scams. Anybody can be scammed.
This book is selling for $13.30. You can buy a collection of Bulgarian stamps for the same price. Why should people buy the book?
Because I hope you want to educate yourself about protecting yourself. Again, I hope you're not sitting there relying on the police to protect you or relying on the government to protect you. Only you can protect yourself. You have to be a little smarter. You have to be a little wiser. And how your educate yourself is to understand what threats are out there.
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Image: Nastia Kobzarenko