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Abagnale: ID theft, fraud 4,000 times easier today

NEW YORK -- Frank Abagnale, whose life story was the inspiration for the movie "Catch Me If You Can" about an imposter on the run from the FBI, spoke about crime today at the technology management conference of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA).

The former imposter and thief has now worked for the FBI for 35 years, helping the agency fight the kind of crimes he committed as a teenager years ago. "What I did is now 4,000 times easier," Abagnale said.

"I needed a Heidelberg press. I needed to handle color separations, chemicals, and typesetting," he added. "Now a criminal can go into a hotel and choose their victim from the advertising outside their window, say Continental Airlines. They can get the logo from the company Web site. They can type the company name to repeat in the background. They can pull a picture of an airplane taking off. In 15 minutes, they can make a four color check that's prettier than the check that Continental actually uses."

Abagnale said there's too much information. When he committed fraud, he invented bank names and addresses, but today's criminals don't need to. A criminal could call accounts receivable and say they wanted to pay an invoice and get not just Continental's bank but also the account number and routing numbers. "Tell a company you want to pay them and they'll tell you everything," he said.

A criminal can call corporate communications and ask for the annual report. "On page three are the signatures of all the company officers. It's black on white glossy, camera-ready art," he said.

Advising the FBI

Of course, Abagnale has been advising the U.S. government on how to prevent this sort of thing for some time. "I worked with the Treasury Department to redesign the currency. In 1996, we changed it for the first time in 72 years," he said.

He added that the effort continues with a new $5 bill this year and a new $100 bill soon, but the Treasury cannot withdraw old bills.

He works on other projects regularly. "I do the same thing today that I did then. Corporations give me their ATM machine and I see if I can get around it."

But systems are only as secure as the people who run them. "I get to walk around the TSA today but all I'd need to do is get to one person and if they lack character or ethics, the system is doomed and I get on board with the bomb. In 2008, white collar crime cost America $900 billion and it's growing every year. When I was asked about aid to Katrina victims, I predicted that 40 percent would go to fraud. Crime is now easier, faster, and harder to detect."

He said that young people should be taught ethics and values. "It has nothing to do with religion; it's about character and ethics," he said.

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