Technology makes it a lot easier to cheat today, according to reformed con artist Frank Abagnale.
The man who made $2.5 million in the 1960s as a teenager faking identities as an airline pilot, lawyer and doctor now works with the FBI and others on cybercrime. He even had a role in the investigation into last year’s JPMorgan Chase & Co. hack, he said in an interview this week near Trafalgar Square in London.
Abagnale became famous after the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, based on his autobiography. He’s spent the past four decades working with the FBI spotting fraud, and says the advances in technology and the over-sharing trends propagated by social media sites like Facebook have made it much easier to create false identities with a few personal details. When he did it, he had to assume an entirely new identity and life.
“What I did 50 years ago as a teenage boy is 4,000 times easier to do today because of technology,” Abagnale said. “Technology breeds crime. It always has, and always will.”
Abagnale said he was in London to speak with government officials about fighting fraud. He declined to detail what he did for the FBI on the hacking case, or whom he met with from the U.K. government.
Abagnale spent five years in French, Swedish and American prisons after being arrested in France in 1970. The U.S. government released him on the condition he would help teach and assist federal law enforcement agencies. He’s the only person the FBI has done that with in its 107-year history, he says.
“I owe a debt to my country 800 times greater than I could ever repay,” says Abagnale, who met his wife when he went undercover for the FBI as an orphanage social worker named Bill Mattison. “That’s why I’m still with the FBI, and will be there until I can’t do anything any longer.”
Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment and said he couldn’t verify the accuracy of Abagnale’s information.
He’s written books on his life and fighting identity theft, helped develop fraud detection software, and speaks regularly at conferences and universities. To illustrate how easily hackers can get inside computer systems, he often tosses a bunch of USB sticks marked “confidential” around the parking lot before a presentation. People who pick them up and stick them in their computers are greeted with a message saying “this is a test and you’ve failed.”
No matter how much money companies invest in cybersecurity, people are the biggest risk, as seen with the JPMorgan hack last year. In that breach, millions of customer accounts were jeopardized when hackers used an employee’s user name and password to worm their way into the bank’s network, people with knowledge of the investigation have said. The FBI and other agencies are investigating.
“The technology works but we’re always dealing with that weakest link, the human beings,” he says. “You need to teach your employees that whether you’re the receptionist on the phone or you’re the officer of the company,” everyone’s a target for a hacker.
While security is tighter now, a new challenge is that often no human contact is needed to defraud someone, he says. It can all be done by computer from the other side of the planet.
People like his son are preparing for new risks, as cyberthreats become even greater and more dangerous for individuals, Abagnale said. His son qualified as an FBI agent nine years ago and, according to Abagnale, received a congratulatory card from Tom Hanks, who played the agent who captured Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can.”
In five years, it’ll be possible to control things like pacemakers and car brakes from thousands of miles away, whereas today you’d have to be within 35 feet, Abagnale said.
“When I look back at my life now, I’m not amazed by what I did at 16 to 21.” What’s really amazing, he said, was “to do something incredible with my life after that.”