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April 21, 2017

Former con artist offers business tips to avoid scams

Photo / Jim Neuger
Frank W. Abagnale Jr., the former con artist now working with the FBI and as a corporate cybercrime consultant, was in Portland Thursday to raise awareness about scams and fraud.

Frank W. Abagnale Jr., the former con artist now working with the FBI and as a corporate cybercrime consultant, was in Portland Thursday to raise awareness about scams and fraud.

He spoke at an AARP Maine event as part of his ongoing work with the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which launched an interactive tool last year allowing consumers to report fraud schemes as well as alerts from law enforcement and other public agencies.

"I am a believer, and I have been my entire career, that education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime," he said in an interview with Mainebiz before the event.

He also said it's rewarding at this late stage in his career to help everyday people avoid identity theft and other cybercrimes that could cheat them out of their life savings.

"These scams are the same scams as 50 years ago — nothing different other than the delivery," he said.

Made famous by the movie "Catch Me if You Can," Abagnale also shared his thoughts on how business owners can protect themselves from being duped.

His first suggestion has to do with checks, which he says are becoming more popular again because people feel more comfortable with checks than banking online.

"So I tell people, if you have a small business and you write checks, you should first of all buy secure checks," he said. "Today, that's easy because there are a lot of companies who provide checks."

Two examples are SAFEChecks, of Canoga Park, Calif., and Intuit Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., company for whom he consults. Abagnale described them as "two companies that provide highly secure checks but for a very reasonable price that a small business can afford."

Asked what makes the checks secure, he said there may be a hologram, a so-called void panograph that prevents someone from color-copying, chemically altering or scanning the checks. "Ten years ago they were very expensive so small businesses couldn't afford them. Now they're very affordable," he said.

He also recommends that small businesses ask their banks about getting a fraud-detection service known as "positive pay."

Companies on positive pay send a daily list of issued checks to their bank with the number of each check, the dollar amount and the person the check is made out to. Later when the bank receives the checks, it compares them against the company's list. Anything that doesn't match, the bank doesn't pay.

If that's too cumbersome, another option is "reverse positive pay," where the bank sends a daily email to the business listing all the checks presented for payment that day. If any of the presented checks don't correlate with the company's bookkeeping records, it can investigate.

"It's a great, great technology," Abagnale said, "very effective in doing away with counterfeits, forgeries and all that."

For shredding, he recommends using a micro-cut shredder, which he said turns paper into confetti the size of a grain of rice. "When you use a straight ribbon shredder, at the FBI we put those back in less than 30 minutes," he said. "If we can do it, so can a criminal."

Abagnale is well acquainted with methods used by fraudsters and counterfeiters from personal experience. His early exploits as a con artist were portrayed on screen by Leonardo diCaprio as a young Abagnale in "Catch Me if You Can," with Tom Hanks as the FBI agent after him.

Abagnale's exploits included posing as an airline pilot, a physician and a lawyer. After serving time in jail he became an adviser to the FBI and other government agencies on a pro-bono basis. He also advises companies including Experian PLC, LexisNexis Group and Trusona, an Arizona-based company on a mission to get rid of all passwords in the next two to three years.

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