AARP Brings Former Conman Frank Abagnale to Hawai‘i to Share Information
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Frank Abagnale Jr. was a teenager when he ran away from home to avoid a custody dispute between his parents and chose to live a life of crime to support himself. He cashed bad checks and impersonated an airline pilot, a medical doctor and a lawyer and became a fugitive of the FBI. Abagnale was eventually caught and served time in prison in Europe and the United States.
“I always knew I’d get caught,” he told the audience that packed the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i’s Manoa Grand Ballroom on Oct. 18. “Only a fool would think otherwise.”
Abagnale was in Hawai‘i to speak at a free seminar sponsored by AARP Hawaii titled, “Learn to Fight Fraud with Ex-Conman Frank Abagnale.” Many of those in attendance had also taken in the free showing of “Catch Me If You Can,” Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an FBI agent in hot pursuit of him. The movie is based on Abagnale’s book of the same title and depicts a young Abagnale using manipulation and deception to con unsuspecting people into helping him financially.
Although the movie was inspired by real events in his life, Abagnale noted that the movie was not meant to be a biography and that it had fictionalized a number of things about him and his past. He said some people called him “brilliant” and a “genius” after seeing the movie. Abagnale disagrees. If he were brilliant and a genius, he said, he should not have broken the law. He should have been able to earn money legally.
But he was young in his criminal days, he reminded the audience. Abagnale committed his crimes when he was between the ages of 16 and 21. After being arrested and convicted, he served his sentence and turned over a new leaf. His change was so impressive that he began working on behalf of the law. Abagnale became associated with the FBI, the law enforcement agency that had brought him to justice. For decades, he helped to educate FBI agents about white-collar crimes such as forgery, embezzlement and other forms of fraud, including identity theft. He continues to work with them, even today.
Abagnale also married, had three children (one of whom is an FBI agent), and has dedicated his life to helping the public and organizations protect themselves from crooks and con artists.
In a statement on his website, he writes, “I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of.” But he also writes that he is glad he was able to turn his life around. At his AARP talk, he said he had turned down three pardons offered by sitting presidents, choosing instead to let his conviction stand. He is proud of the fact that he has been a good husband and father, since his own early family life was troubled, triggered by the separation and subsequent divorce of his parents. Abagnale considers it to have been the negative turning point in his life.
Identity Theft Prevention Tips
Abagnale knows that many older adults worry about identity theft, as the subject has been one of the most reported news stories over the years. He showed the audience a long list of some of the world’s largest reported electronic data breaches, including Yahoo!’s December 2016 announcement that data from 1 billion Yahoo! accounts may have been stolen in 2013. The data included names, e-mail addresses and passwords. More recently, the credit reporting company Equifax announced that as many as 143 million people may have had their personal data exposed. That data may have included Social Security numbers, birthdates, driver’s license numbers and credit card numbers — information that criminals could use to steal a person’s identity.
The Yahoo! and Equifax breaches are just two examples. There are many others — with likely more to come in the future because computer security technology is not foolproof. Additionally, people sometimes unknowingly make themselves vulnerable to identity theft by not keeping their personal information private.
In the case of credit card fraud, Abagnale had two suggestions for people to consider in light of the recent Equifax data breach. One suggestion is to put a freeze on your credit account so that no one can access your credit file until you unfreeze it. This makes it difficult for identity thieves to open a credit card account in your name and start making charges on it.
According to the Federal Trade Commission’s website, “To be effective, you must place a freeze with all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Transunion and Experian. That’s because when a thief tries to take out new credit, a business can pull your credit report from any of the three agencies. If you’ve only frozen your Equifax file and the business checks with Experian or Transunion, your Equifax freeze does you no good.”
There is a cost, about $5 or $10, associated with placing or lifting a freeze on your account. Equifax will waive the fee until Jan. 31, 2018, but the other credit reporting agencies are not obligated to do so.
Abagnale also suggested signing up with a reputable credit monitoring service, which alerts consumers to changes in their credit report files and gives them information about other activity. This allows credit card holders to monitor their accounts for anything unusual. There are several credit monitoring services available and consumers are urged to diligently research their options.
Abagnale has been working with the national AARP organization to help the public avoid falling victim to identity theft. On its website, AARP notes that while identity theft is a pervasive problem, there are things people can do to protect themselves. For example:
1) Lock your mailbox. You can buy a lockable mailbox starting at around $40.
2) Do not leave anything of value, such as your wallet, laptop or mobile device, in your parked car, as it will tempt identity thieves.
3) Do not toss sensitive documents into the trash or recycling bin — shred them first.
4) Use a micro-cut shredder — the type that shreds documents into confetti — to destroy your sensitive documents. Micro-cut shredders cost around $30.
5) Secure your smartphone with a password. An AARP survey found that more than a quarter of adults with smartphones fail to protect them with a password. When you set your password, avoid using one that would be easy to guess, such as your birthdate, your children’s names, pet names or numbers in a sequence (1,2,3,4).
6) Secure your computer by regularly changing your password to reduce the risk of online identity theft. Experts suggest changing passwords at least every three months. Consider creating a passphrase — something easy to remember, but hard to crack. For example, take the slogan “Just do it!” Take out the spaces, change the “o” to a zero (0) and the “i” to the numeral one (1), and you have “Justd01t!”
7) Don’t share your Social Security number unnecessarily. Only share it for tax reasons, obtaining credit and to verify employment. Also, do not carry your Medicare card with you unless you are on your way to a health care appointment. Instead, make a copy and black out all but the last four digits. This is enough information for a provider to get started in case of emergency.
8) Use a gel pen to write out checks. Mail thieves can wash off ballpoint pen ink and rewrite the check.
9) Use strong passwords to protect financial accounts. Consider a passphrase rather than just a passcode or password.
10) Do not give out personal information over the phone, over the internet or through regular mail unless you initiated that contact. If you are contacted by someone claiming to be your financial institution, do not respond. Instead, contact the institution with a number you know to be correct.
Frank Abagnale also cautioned the audience members about sharing too much personal information on social media, such as Facebook. Identity thieves can learn a lot about you through social media, including where you work, who your family members and friends are and what you look like. A photo of you facing forward, like a driver’s license photo, can easily be copied and used to create a fake ID.
Abagnale advised against using debit cards, which deduct money directly from a person’s bank account. He prefers credit cards, which allow the card owner to borrow money from the card issuer only up to a certain limit, and then pay it off. Credit card users are covered by the Fair Credit Billing Act, a federal law that protects consumers from unfair billing practices. If a criminal uses a credit card for an unauthorized purchase, the money is actually stolen from the card issuer (before the amount is paid off by the credit card holder), which is better than the money being taken out from the cardholder’s bank account, as would be the case with a debit card. You can also build up good credit when a credit card is used appropriately.
Finally, Abagnale emphasized that if you are a victim of fraud, report it and don’t be embarrassed. It has happened to many people; by reporting it, you can help law enforcement bring these criminals to justice so that others will be protected from their crimes.
More information on identity theft and other scams can be found in the Fraud Watch Network section of the AARP website, aarp.org.
Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributing writer for The Hawai‘i Herald.