With more and more of us sharing the minutiae of our lives on social media, we are leaving ourselves at risk of identity theft. A little more self-awareness could make all the difference, as conman-turned-security-consultant Frank Abagnale tells Ross Davies in the latest edition of Overseas.
“Anyone can have their identity stolen from them – even me,” says Frank Abagnale. He should know. For much of the 1960s, Abagnale was one of America’s most notorious impostors, assuming no fewer than eight identities, including airline pilot, physician and lawyer. His story was immortalised in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can.
Yet, since being released from prison in 1974, Abagnale has sublimated his eye for a scam for the good, establishing himself as a highly respected authority on fraud, forgery and cybersecurity.
In between consulting and lecturing at the FBI Academy, Abagnale has found time to write a new book. Entitled Scam Me If You Can, it is an expansive compendium of selfprotection tips for consumers to protect themselves from scammers. It weighs in on everything from tax fraud and real estate ruses to charity rackets and the oldest con of all – identity theft.
It’s a problem that is getting worse. In the UK alone, almost 500 people a day fall victim to identity theft, claims Cifas, the fraud prevention body. In the US in 2018, close to 16 million people suffered the same fate – losing roughly $17 billion in the process.
For Abagnale, there is a direct correlation between the epidemic and society’s willingness to flaunt personal data online – particularly social media platforms.
“People give away so much information about themselves and then they complain that someone stole their identity,” he says, speaking over the phone from his office in Washington DC. “I’m not on any social media whatsoever. If you told me where you were born and your date of birth on your Facebook page, that would be enough for me to go and steal your identity.”
It is much easier for scammers to assume another’s identity than it was when Abagnale was on the lam. e demographic of victims is also much vaster than one might think. Abagnale was commissioned to write his new book by the American Association of Retired People (AARP), with the aim of helping senior citizens better safeguard themselves. However, he soon discovered in his research that younger people are more open to risk.
“I was amazed to find out that millennials are scammed more often than seniors – they are really naïve,” he says. “Although seniors tend to lose more money from scams because they have more cash to begin with.”
In the opening chapter of Scam Me If You Can, Abagnale tells the cautionary tale of Helen Andrews, a 64-year-old retiree, who has her identity entirely subsumed by a scammer thanks to stolen paperwork and credit card details from her home.
For Andrews, the months-long ordeal – which saw her account drained and credit rating totalled – left her feeling like “a non-human being”. This sense of violation is common amongst victims, and in some cases carries the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
So, what lessons can be learned from Andrews' case? First and foremost, says Abagnale, is that we do not yet live in a paperless society (despite what the insistence of futurists). Many of us still receive bank statements and gas bills in the post, including account details and other personal information – all grist for the mill for scammers.
Rule number one, says Abagnale: “Invest in a good shredder. Because we’re still more likely to see the paperless toilet than we are a paperless society.”
As highlighted by the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal last year – in which it was discovered that the social media giant had sold on the data of tens of millions of users to the British consulting firm – we also need to be aware of the potential for our data to be used without our permission. As alluded by Abagnale above, it might be in one’s interest to come off social media.
Unfortunately, the advent of the internet means it is harder to track down online scammers than the analogue confidence men of yore, who, like Abagnale in his former life, relied predominantly on charm and good patter. These days your identity is more likely to be stolen by “a guy in his bedroom in Russia with a laptop”.
“These guys will never see their victim, so there is no compassion or emotion on their part,” says Abagnale. “They’ll take you for every penny – technology has made it easy for them.”
As Abagnale says, anyone at any time can find themselves at the unwanted end of a scam. It is often cause for embarrassment, but shouldn’t be. Victims would instead do well to share their experiences in the name of education and societal vigilance. at said, prudence should always start at home.
“You can’t rely on the police, the banks or the government to protect you,” says Abagnale. “It’s down to you to be smarter.”