Identity theft is easier than ever, children are more valuable targets than adults and even the best technology to fight it is vulnerable to unpredictable human behavior.
Minnesota’s biggest annual gathering of technology security experts began Tuesday with that sober message from Frank Abagnale, a longtime FBI consultant whose exploits as a young identity thief and check forger in the 1960s were portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can.”
“I have never witnessed, nor will I live long enough to witness, a more simplistic crime than me stealing your identity,” Abagnale said at the Secure 360 conference at St. Paul RiverCentre. “That would be like you asking me to count to three. One, two, three. That simple.”
He told the 1,400 attendees they could develop the greatest technology in the world, and it would still be vulnerable to the greed or need of the person who is running it. “If that person has a lack of character in their personality, that system is doomed to failure,” he said.
Abagnale said the things he did in the 1960s, imitating other people and stealing money from companies through fraudulent paychecks and other schemes, is now much easier to do because of computer and network technology, as well as the willingness of people to share personal information through social media.
“It is amazing the information we give away,” he said. “We make it easier and easier for criminals.”
Abagnale, who lives in South Carolina, became a consultant for the FBI in 1974, when he was paroled after five years in prison for various fraud schemes. In the four decades since, he became one of the nation’s leading experts on document fraud. As financial crime moved increasingly into cyberspace, he helped develop programs to counter it. He said he rarely writes checks today and never uses a debit card.
As he changed his life to fighting crime, Abagnale positioned himself to educate people about identity risks. In the 1970s, the Justice Department used him in TV public service announcements that described how people should protect checks. In the 1980s, banks stuffed messages he wrote about credit protection into monthly statements. This year, AARP tapped him to give lectures to help older adults sort through the news and noise about technology crimes.
“I’m glad I’m a draw,” he said in an interview. “People know that, not only am I the guy that did it, I spent 40 years on the other side.”
Statistically, every American has had their identity stolen as a result of the data breaches at banks, retailers and other businesses in recent years, he said. Cyberthieves store the information and it becomes more valuable to other thieves with time.
The trouble Intuit Inc. ran into in Minnesota and other states this year with its TurboTax software, he noted, was not because of the product itself. “It’s just people used their software to take the information from other breaches and file a tax return in somebody else’s name,” Abagnale said.
Last year, the IRS paid more than $5 billion in refunds to people who filed fraudulent tax returns. The agency stopped more than $22 billion in attempted fraud, Abagnale said.
The personal information of children is most desired by cyberthieves. “A 2-year-old gives you a much longer time to become that 2-year-old and use that identity before that person becomes of an age to know their identity had been stolen,” he said.
Abagnale prescribed a number of steps that individuals and companies can take to lower their risk, some as simple as using a microcut shredder that turns paper into confetti rather than strips or diamonds, which can be put back together.
For social media users, Abagnale says no one should ever post their birth date and birthplace. “If on your Facebook page you happen to tell me where you were born and your birthdate, then I’m 98 percent of the way to stealing your identity,” he said.
Companies can spend huge fortunes on security, he noted, but they remain vulnerable to careless actions by employees. When he is brought in to speak or consult with a company, Abagnale said he performs a test by parking in the employee lot and dropping some memory sticks marked “confidential” as he walks into the building. Any employee who picks up a stick and pops it into a work computer gets a harsh message.
“It says, ‘This is a test and you failed,’ ” he said. “I let them know what it would have meant had I had intrusive malware on that stick.”
Abagnale ended his speech with observations about the decline of ethics in American society and the absence of ethics teaching in schools and universities.
“I teach ethics at the FBI academy, which is ironic,” Abagnale said afterward. “But years ago, someone at the bureau said, ‘Who better than you to do this.’ I try to teach young agents the importance of doing the right thing.”
Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241
Here are some of the steps Frank Abagnale recommended at the Secure360 conference to protect personal information:
Facebook: Don’t put your birth date and birthplace on your profile.
Online banking: Use a unique password. Especially don’t use the same password you use for a retail website like Amazon.com.
Children: No individual pictures on social media, only in groups.
Debit cards: Don’t use for purchases; use credit cards instead.
Shredders: Use any brand of micro-cut shredder, not those that cut in strips or crisscross.