With Frank Abagnale, Former Con Man, Author of Scam Me If You Can, Catch Me If You Can, and Anti-scam Hero
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Steve spoke with Frank Abagnale, former notorious con man and swindler, whose life was turned into the major motion picture, Catch Me If You Can. After decades of eluding capture, Frank was eventually caught and ended up working with the FBI to develop strategies to help people avoid being conned or hacked by scammers. Frank reveals many of these strategies in his latest book, Scam Me If You Can.
Times Have Changed
Frank began committing his crimes in the 1960s. In the decades since, he’s developed a career helping the FBI and law enforcement get a better idea of what they’re facing with the criminal con artists out there. Along the way, he’s become a highly sought-after speaker at various conferences and an asset for many financial institutions. Recently, he has been working with seniors, who are, unfortunately, often the prime target of scammers. It was actually AARP that contracted with Frank to produce the book, Scam Me If You Can.
Frank noted that there were no cybercrimes when he first went to the FBI Academy, no wide-scale identity theft, no phishing emails, none of that existed. Modern technology has greatly changed the way con artists operate. Fifty years ago, the majority of scams were done in person. Today, however, the guy trying to scam you is sitting with a computer at his kitchen table, possibly somewhere in Bulgaria. The basic scam techniques and strategies haven’t really changed through the years, but the technology has, which is one of the challenges for law enforcement—keeping on top of the sophisticated technology that’s out there.
The rise of social media is one of the areas where we unintentionally make ourselves vulnerable to scam artists. You often read a story about someone who got scammed, and they say that the scammer was so believable, “because he seemed to know so much about me”. Well, you make a con artist’s life easy when you post pictures online of you and your girlfriend with your new car, attending some family gathering, you identify all her relatives in the photo, and say where the photo was taken, etc. You get the idea: way too much of our personal information is already exposed online.
A Good Salesperson
Steve asked Frank about something he mentions in his book, the fact that great con artists share some key personality traits with great salespeople, such as the ability to get under people’s skin and push their buttons. Scarcity, urgency, and flattery—those are three strategies that both salespeople and scammers use to get you to do what they want. They try to convince you that you have to do something immediately, like give them your credit card number, which is one of the major red flags that you’re being scammed.
Another technique con artists rely on is the art of putting the victim “under the ether”. This refers to the ability of scammers to play their role to such a degree that they become immersed in the con, so much that they’re believing whatever lie they’re selling, which makes it much easier to convince the victim.
Most people are easy to scam because most people—unlike con artists—are basically honest and don’t have an overly deceptive mind. If someone’s phone rings and their caller ID says it’s the police, they’re probably going to believe it. So, a fake-police/scammer then tells that person that their grandson has been arrested and that, instead of calling their parents, the kid has asked that we call them, his grandparents, to get bailed out—the classic grandparent scam. If the scammer can get the grandparent’s credit card information over the phone, they’ve got complete access to their finances.
Understanding The Red Flags
One of the newer scams on the market today involves automated calls, also referred to as robocalls. Frank goes on to explain how easy it is to spoof a number and to make it show up on your caller ID as whatever number the scammer chooses, the police, your bank, or even your own number.
Being well-educated in the way that scams and scammers operate is key for defending yourself against these kinds of attacks. As a reformed scammer himself, Frank’s mission now is to educate people about what a particular scam is, how it works, and to stop them from playing into the criminal’s hand. That’s why he’s working with AARP to provide seniors with the necessary information to help them spot and avoid scams.
He goes on to say that in the case of robocalls, one of the best defenses is to just not answer the phone when a number calls you that you don’t recognize. If it’s a legitimate and important call, then the caller should leave you an appropriate message so you can get in touch with them.
Pretty much all scams boil down to two red flags you should be looking for. The first is asking you for money or payment of some type—and you always have to give them the money immediately. The second red flag is someone asking for your personal information, such as your Social Security number or bank account information. Another tip-off is that scammers often use some kind of scare tactic. For example, they threaten to turn a bill you supposedly owe over to a collection agency which will ruin your credit.
Frank predicts that the password security systems we use now are likely going to disappear and be replaced by something better (and less annoying!) in just the next two to three years. Passwords are actually an old technology from the 1960s, and a number of companies are working on alternate identification technologies.
Romance Scams And Charity Scams
Steve asked Frank about romance scams and charity scams. Frank explained that so-called romance scams nearly all work the same way: You connect with someone online, like through a dating website; you talk online or on the phone with them for a while and they seem really nice. (Oh, and by the way, that handsome profile photo they’re using is probably fake.) At some point, some emergency arises, and they ask you to send them some money. That’s the point at which you need to say to yourself, “I’ve never met this person in person. I don’t really know this person. And so, no, I’m not going to send them money.”
Charity scams have always existed. The best defense against them is, again, education. Don’t give money to any charity before doing research and checking it out. Contacting your local state attorney general’s office is a good option since they have a huge staff that deals specifically with consumer crimes. They can usually tell you right off whether something is a legitimate charity. If they’re not familiar with it, they will research it and get back to you to let you know what they find.
To learn all you need to know to protect yourself from scam artists, take a look at Frank’s book, Scam Me if You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily of the radio show. Interviewee is not a representative of the radio show. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by the radio show.
Steve Pomeranz: You know my next guest. His early career as a conman and swindler was made into a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg and his character played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Can you guess the movie’s name? Well, the answer, of course, is Catch Me if You Can and the conman was Frank Abagnale. And Frank joins me today to discuss his new book, not Catch Me if You Can, but Scam Me if You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Ripoff Artists. And I’m so pleased to welcome him to our program.
Hey, Frank, welcome to the show.
Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Steve. Glad to be on.
Steve Pomeranz: You know, it’s important to state upfront that you turned your early years of crime into a legitimate career, lecturing around the country, training FBI agents, assisting the FBI when they called on you, and you were a trusted FBI person for more than four decades. What have you been doing of late?
Frank Abagnale: Basically, the same thing that I did before the movie for the last 43 years. I’ve taught at the FBI Academy, taught two generations of FBI agents. I, of course, have conducted more than 3000 seminars around the world for corporations, financial institutions. And then the last five years, I’ve spent some time with AARP helping them deal with crimes against seniors—they, of course, have 38 million members, and they’re concerned about things like scams and identity theft. And so, that’s how the book came to be from that relationship with AARP.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah. That’s actually how I found out about the book, receiving literature from AARP and seeing your name and seeing what you were doing, and then we reached out to you. Now, when you were first washing checks—or whatever you called it—that was a different world back then. And you were really above the average in the sense you pretended to be a pilot, you pretended to be a medical doctor, all of those wonderful things in the movie, but your main con was writing bad checks. Now the world has changed just a little in those 43 years. It’s a lot more complicated now, isn’t it?
Frank Abagnale: It is, but it has made crime 4,000 times easier than when I did it 50 years ago because I didn’t have all of the technology that exists today and the ability to do it from thousands of miles away. But certainly, I’ve had to change over my 43-year career of learning all these new crimes. When I went to the FBI Academy, there was no cyber crimes, no identity theft, no phishing emails. None of those things existed. And crime is changing constantly, so you have to constantly keep up with crime. And I’ve had to do that my entire career.
But the one thing that I’ve realized is that the criminal hasn’t changed; the methods, the personality of the criminal is the same. It’s just that the technology the criminal has that they use today has changed completely.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, in the book you talk about the techniques that con artists use, and one of them is the art of putting your victim under the ether. What is that?
Frank Abagnale: It’s absolutely just the ability to get into someone’s… To believe in what you’re saying and that you are who you say you are. And the truth is that the majority of people are honest and, thank God, they are. But because they’re honest, they don’t really have a deceptive mind. So when the phone rings and the caller ID says that it’s the police department, they truly believe it is the police department because no one’s told them differently. And then when the person says they’ve arrested their grandson for DWI and they tell you what kind of car he was driving, he had a passenger in the car and what her name was, but he asked us not to call his parents, he asked us to call you, and he has to post bail in the next couple of hours or he’ll have to spend the weekend in jail. Of course, the grandparent immediately, “Well, how do I do that?” “Well, you can give me a credit card over the phone and we’ll post the bail.”
And unless someone’s walked you through that and explained the grandparent scam to you, you would truly believe it’s legitimate because they go to social media where the grandson has shown his car, a picture of it, has his girlfriend’s name and a picture with her, has his family’s name. So the things they’re telling you have so much credibility because we live in a way-too-much-information world where we tell everybody everything about us and then wonder why they can answer all the security questions and they can make it sound so real.
Steve Pomeranz: It’s also very insidious because the way they speak to you, once they have a couple of phone calls—not in this particular case where they’re calling you and it’s a matter of urgency and you have to act now—but a lot of people get these phone calls where, at first, they don’t trust, but they know just enough about the person where they can become their friend and then very subtly get them to divulge how much they pay for their mortgage, what bank they use.
Frank Abagnale: Exactly.
Steve Pomeranz: It’s more subtle than that, isn’t it?
Frank Abagnale: Yeah. And what’s real scary, I think, about it is 50 years ago there were con men and con women and, of course, that stood for confidence man. And basically, that was an individual who had to deal with you one-on-one and had to be in front of you. So he dressed well, he had a great vocabulary, he looked and spoke very well, and he was very friendly and likable. And he, of course, being a human being, dealing with another human being, there was some emotion involved and some conscience involved. He may have said, “I’m not going to take this person for all their money because he’s a nice old guy. I don’t want his house and steal all his money, I’m just going to steal some of his money.”
The difference today, that individual is sitting in a kitchen in their pajamas with a laptop and a cup of coffee in Moscow, in India, in China, in Jamaica. They never see you, you never see them, there’s no emotion, there’s no conscience, there’s no compassion. They will steal from you every single penny you have. And that’s the big difference between now and 50 years ago.
Steve Pomeranz: Years ago, I would read books on sales techniques, and they talked about certain types of techniques which create more sales. And you, in your book, call them hitting the buttons, using scarcity or urgency or flattery as a way for these people to get to you. Can you explain that a little bit?
Frank Abagnale: Yeah. I used to tell people all the time that if you show me a great salesman or you show me a great marketing individual or a great public relations individual, they basically have the same personality as the conman, the same talents, the same abilities. The only difference between the two is one stays on the right side of the law and the other one crosses over that line between what’s legal and illegal. But the personalities are the same. They know to use the flattery, they know to use the urgency, they know how to get under your skin and get you to buy what they want to sell you or convince you that they’re telling the truth. It’s the same thing. It’s just one using it in the right way, one using it in the wrong way.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s talk about those people who are calling us day in and day out from, actually, from numbers that are not 800 numbers. They’re not private phone numbers. They’re actually numbers from people that we think we might know. It may say Frank Abagnale on there, or Steve Pomeranz as the caller. And we’re talking about robocalls. What is the current state of the robocall issue?
Frank Abagnale: And, robocalls, when we look at companies like AT&T and Verizon and companies like that, they’re about 30% of where the robocalls come from. The majority of the robocalls are generated through these private phone companies that are all over the world, in places like Jamaica where they’re very small businesses and they make a lot of money off of these robocalls, and they’re able to use these calls for every possible thing that you can think about.
And, of course, this spoofing of numbers is very serious because, for example, if it comes up on the caller ID and it says the number for Social Security, and then I get you on the phone and maybe you’re a little bit reluctant. And I say, “Look, Mrs. Jones, if you don’t think I’m from Social Security, you see the number on your phone that I called in on, go to the phone book and look up under Federal Government Social Security, and you’ll see I’m calling you from the same 800 number.” And that’s very convincing. And I can make it be your daughter’s phone number, your number, the person next door’s number.
So, again, unless someone knows this, it’s very easy to convince people that it’s real. And that’s why, in my entire career, I believe that education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime. If you educate people and you say, “Here’s the scam, here’s how it works, and here’s how they forge checks, and here’s how you tell whether they’re altered or they’re counterfeited.” If you explain to people and they see it, they’re smart enough to protect themselves. But they need the tools, they need to understand how that’s happening.
And that’s why I was commissioned to write this book by AARP. I didn’t receive any advance or royalties from the book, it’s their book. But they wanted to make sure that I covered every type of scam involving millennials, involving seniors, involving investment people, so that people understood these scams happen to everybody.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s talk about the things that you can do when you receive or that you should do when you receive a robocall. I’ll start it off. First of all, don’t answer the phone. That’s in your book. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t pick up the call. Why is that?
Frank Abagnale: Well, because a lot of people have a message, a receiver or a phone, that they get messages on and they can hear that. I would just not answer the phone, then I can hear the message. And if it says this is U.S. Treasury or the IRS or somebody you know, it’s a scam call. You just don’t have to respond to it at all.
But what I have found in doing the research for this book and spending the time writing it is that, basically, when you look at all these scams, no matter what they are, robocalls or otherwise, they come down to two red flags. And if you understand these red flags, you will probably not get scammed. And the first red flag is that I’m going to tell you that you have to give me money immediately. You have to pay this right now. So either give me a credit card number over the phone, go and tell me where your bank account number is so I can draft on it, or go down to Walmart and get a Green Dot card, call me right back and give me the number on the back of the card.
If I had said in the grandparents’ scam to the police officer, “Well, you know what? I live just a block from the police station, so why don’t I just walk down there right now and give you the $500 bail?” “Oh, no, no, you can’t do that. It has to be right now.”
And the second flag is that simply at some point, whether it’s a romance scam or I’m saying I’m your bank, I’m going to ask you for personal information. What’s your social security number? What’s your date of birth? Where do you bank? What’s your credit card number? Those are the red flags.
Steve Pomeranz: Some of these calls take a recording of your picking up the phone, and someone’s saying to you, “Are you Steve Pomeranz?” And you go, “Yes.” They take that yes and they apply it in all nefarious ways. What do they do with that?
Frank Abagnale: Well, yes, and that’s happened to my own wife. That happens to lots of people. And basically, then they turn around and send you a bill for something that you never ordered. And you call the place, and you say, “Look, I never ordered this.” “No, actually we have a recording of you saying, yes, you want it.” And then they play this recording and it’s your voice saying yes.
And if you say, “Well, look, I’m not doing that.” They’ll try to threaten you with, “I’m going to turn this over to a collection agency, I’m going to let the credit bureau know, I’ll turn this over to our attorneys.” Those threats you just need to ignore. There’s nothing they’re going to do. There’s nothing they can do. But that’s a scare feature of the second part of that scam.
Steve Pomeranz: So, if someone says this is your name, you should go, “Correct.”
Frank Abagnale: You could.
Steve Pomeranz: I don’t know what they’re going to do with the word correct.
Frank Abagnale: No.
Steve Pomeranz: The other interesting thing was that most of the calls come on Tuesdays and Fridays. Any logic to that?
Frank Abagnale: I bet most of these calls come out of boiler rooms, and these boiler rooms consist of a lot of people. And, basically, there’s certain times of the week that they get better rates on those calls, there’s certain times that they think people are more apt to be—the people whoever their target is—would be more apt to answer the telephone.
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, I got you.
Frank Abagnale: So it’s just based around those kinds of things.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Frank Abagnale. The book is Scam Me if You Can. You may remember the movie, Catch Me if You Can. He was the man on which this movie was based. The book is Scam Me if You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Ripoff Artists.
Frank, I want to talk about passwords, because they’re driving me crazy. And I try to change my passwords, and I’m constantly typing them in wrong because they’re too long and they contain symbols and numbers. And according to your book, none of that really matters very much. What’s the current thinking on the use of passwords? And is there a way to get rid of using passwords?
Frank Abagnale: I wrote, many years ago, that passwords were for tree houses. Passwords are a 1964 technology. They were developed in 1964, I was 16 years old, I’m 71 now. And we are still using passwords. We know for a fact that approximately 80 to 90% of all the malware, ransomware is caused by passwords. So, absolutely, I’ve been saying for years that we need to get rid of passwords. It’s a very old technology. And happy to say today that there are a couple of different companies now that have come out with the ability to eliminate the use of a password. They identify you by your phone. So there’s an ad out that you saw Serena Williams running through a marketplace. She saw a necklace she liked, but she was in a running outfit, but she only had her phone in her hand. So she walked over to the ATM machine, she pressed an app on her phone, and she got her cash, no card and no password.
Those types of technologies today are what’s taking over the need for passwords and eliminating that need. So I think in the next two or three years, you will see the major banks and certainly the major retailers and airlines eliminate the need for passwords.
But it’s funny you say that because the other day I forgot a password. So I went online and said I forgot my password. They came back and said, “Well, tell us the last password you used.” It’s just very frustrating. But I think we’re going to eliminate the need for passwords very shortly in the near future.
Steve Pomeranz: I know in the Apple system and the iOS system, it saves the passwords in a key chain. It’s incredibly convenient to have that kind of a service. Does that protect me at all?
Frank Abagnale: My concern about those things is who is the service? Is the service seven guys in a loft in Denver, Colorado? Or is it a multimillion-dollar technology company that’s keeping those passwords? And then how do I know what that company is doing to keep them from being breached? Just a few days ago, we had a company that keeps 20 million fingerprints and biometrics for companies in Australia, the United Kingdom, and America. These are the companies that when you went to your office building and you show your ID, those companies keep all of that data, and now that 20 million pieces of data in somebody else’s hands, so they have access and entry points now and biometrics of 20 million people. So it’s only as safe as how good the company is of keeping it safe.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah. How many breaches do you hear about in a given year? It’s constantly these large companies, even the credit companies, the Equifaxes of the world, even they’re being breached. If they’re being breached, what chance do we have?
Frank Abagnale: Right. And as I’ve said, and I’ve dealt with many of these breaches, and as I tell agents all the time, that every breach occurs because somebody in that company did something they weren’t supposed to do or somebody in that company failed to do something they were supposed to do. Hackers don’t cause breaches, people do. Hackers just look for open doors. And in the case of Equifax, they didn’t update their system, they didn’t fix their security patches sent to them by Microsoft. So the hacker simply was able to easily get into that open door, sit there for a couple of months and decide what information I want to steal and stole it.
And no matter what breach you look at, that’s always the case. So in the case of Capital One, that was Amazon. Someone working at Amazon was able to go up in the Cloud, bring down that data, and sell that data. So it always comes down to that individual, that human element of it.
Steve Pomeranz: I want to find out more about one of the topics in your book called the “wild world of dating app scams.” Now, this never occurred to me that this would be an area for people to operate. How do those work?
Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and there are lots of names like cat fishing and so on. But the romance scams have basically doubled in the last couple of years since I’ve been writing the book, and they’ve become very common. So one of the ways they do it is they will go to a Facebook page and they will capture the photograph of a young marine who’s very good looking, he’s in full uniform, has his medals on his chest. And they then take that photo and they send out thousands of emails to women saying that this is me. And then they get a relationship with them on the phone or through emails. And eventually, after a month or two months, they might say, “I’m over in Afghanistan, and I wondered if you could send me a gift card with $200 on it because I don’t have access to money.”
Sometimes they’re just somebody you meet online. In one case, it was a woman who was involved in a sweepstakes scam from a Jamaican group. And then the guy turned it into a romance scam and took her for a lot more money. And again, I say to someone, look, if you meet someone online and you have a relationship, you’re talking back and forth, they keep you company, you like it because you’re alone and you have someone now to talk to and communicate with, that’s fine. But at some point, that person starts to ask you for money, that’s when you have to say to yourself, “I don’t know this person. I never met this person. I’m not going to send this person money.” But that’s when you have to wake up.”
And I remind people today that 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 have to be a smarter consumer. You have to be a wiser business person today than you did 25 years ago. So you have to educate yourself about these things, otherwise, you will be victimized.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, I’m terribly disappointed that all the Russian women that know me by my first name and want to meet me are not real. Is that what you’re telling me, Frank?
Frank Abagnale: No, they’re not real. They’re not real. They really want your money, they don’t want you.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay. All right. Finally, let’s talk about charity scammers, and we’ll wrap it up with that. These are scammers that pull on your heartstrings. Again, we were talking about some of these hitting these buttons, the urgency, the flattery. Give us one quick story there.
Frank Abagnale: Especially like the Go Fund Me, and we had the couple that joined in with the guy that was homeless and it was all a scam and they got $400,000 from people who felt sorry for them, and that was all a scam. And we’re getting ready to have election time and there’ll be all these scams about donate money to my campaign, which is not really the person that you’re donating the money to.
What I tell people I find is the simplest way to deal with that, if you’re approached by a charity you’re not familiar with, is to contact your state attorney general’s office. Because your state attorney general is the best source because they’re elected by you, and he or she has an enormous staff that deals with consumer crimes, and they’re very educated, they’re very good. I’ve worked with all 50 of them. Basically, they’re able to tell you this is a legitimate charity, it’s not a legitimate charity. They will look into it if they don’t know about it and they will get back to you about it. But before you part with your money, make sure that you know that you’re giving it to a legitimate source for a legitimate reason, and there’s ways to verify and check that out.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest, Frank Abagnale, the book is Scam Me if You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Ripoff Artists. Frank, how do people get this book?
Frank Abagnale: It’s available on Amazon or, of course, in any of the bookstores. It’s published by Random House. And it’s my fifth book, but all the books previous to that have been about commercial crimes. So this is the first time I really looked at consumer crimes. And I tried to do it so that it just basically educates people and comes back as a reference book if they ever need to look something up to see how that scam is working in case they’re in the middle of being scammed.
Steve Pomeranz: It’s a good read. Again, the name of the book is Scam Me if You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Ripoff Artists. And to hear this and any interview again, just go to our website, which is stevepomeranz.com. We love your questions. We love the back and forth that it provides us to hear what you think of the show and to answer any questions that you may have. While you’re there, also sign up for our weekly update for upcoming live events and the important topics we’ve covered this week straight into your inbox. That’s stevepomeranz.com. Frank, thanks again.
Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Steve.