The Evolution of Forgery in the Digital Age

This is a summary from an article printed in Wired UK.

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Frank W. Abagnale, Jr.In 1964, young Frank Abagnale was a runaway, dodging authorities for a variety of juvenile crimes. With few options left to him, the 16-year-old created a fake airline ID, and then embarked on a journey of crime that would later inspire a book, movie, and Broadway musical all of the same title: Catch Me If You Can.

Just last year, Abagnale sat down with to reflect on the last 50 years of his life, and provide some insight into how con artists have evolved into cyber criminals, and what you can do to protect yourself.

The Birth of a Con-man and an Educator

With his fake airline ID, Abagnale flew more than 1 million miles before he was 21. Other presumed identities included a doctor, an attorney, and a college professor. He was also a master check forger, cashing in on more than $2.5 million in fake checks. By the time law enforcement tracked him down in France, he was wanted in more than 12 countries. He spent six months in prison in France and six in Sweden, before he was deported to the United States —where he promptly escaped from the airplane that brought him there. Despite his attempts to evade the law, he was ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Four years later, the government approached him with a deal: consult with the FBI on the tricks of con-men and thieves for the remainder of his sentence, and he could be released. He agreed to these terms, and went on to build one of the most highly-respected fraud and forgery consultative organizations in the world.

To this day and for the past 38 years, he continues to consult with the FBI, leads lectures on forgery and embezzlement at the FBI Academy, and is a faculty member at the Department of Justice National Advocacy Center. He has helped more than 14,000 organizations protect themselves from fraud.

The Growth of Cyber Criminals

In the 50 years since Abagnale cashed his first fake check, the world of forgery has moved online. He says it’s made the art of conning people thousands of times easier. After all, a whole world of information is at our fingertips, as well as the fingertips of criminals. A simple mistake can breach the security of an individual or an entire organization.

Have you ever made these risky mistakes?

  1. Picked a random thumb drive up off the ground. Every time he consults with a new company, Abagnale drops a handful of USB drives in and around the office and then observes how many people pick them up and plug them into their computers. USB drives can hold a variety of viruses that hack into company networks and scrub confidential data from them.
  2. Your Facebook picture is a straight-on photo of your face. With facial recognition apps like PittPatt, perpetrators can easily take a photo of you and then use it to find your social properties elsewhere online. Abagnale recommends using a group photo or an action shot as your profile picture, instead.
  3. The date and town of your birth are public information. When combined with your photo, according to Abagnale, this is about 98% of the information hackers need to steal your identity. Set your social profile settings to private for these tidbits about your life.
  4. You’ve ignored your company’s security policy. Many of the major security hacks that Abagnale has observed are related to a simple mistake made by one person within a large corporation. If you’ve opened a strange e-mail or visited a suspicious website on your work computer, you’ve put your company and your customers at risk. He also recommends that if you handle a lot of confidential information on your employer’s network, it’s a good idea to leave the computer at the office—home wireless connections are less secure than company networks.