Ex-con man: People should push pause to avoid scams

‘Catch me if you can’ man on Maui: Subject of the film ‘Catch Me If You Can’ says to ‘stop, verify’ before taking action

Fraud expert and former con artist Frank Abagnale speaks at King Kamehameha Golf Club during Saturday’s AARP Fraud Watch Network presentation. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAIKAPU — Stop. Verify.

Those were the instructions on how to easily halt fraud from Frank Abagnale, a famous identity thief and the subject of the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Abagnale and Tom Hanks plays an FBI agent pursuing him. The film is not a biography.

Abagnale, who has been working with the FBI for decades and has his own company, Abagnale & Associates, was speaking Saturday at an AARP-sponsored event in Waikapu.

He said that if people get a call from someone asking for information and/or money that requires an immediate or urgent response, that call is a scam.

If the call allegedly came from a police department or even the IRS, Abagnale urges people to find the contact numbers for those agencies from a legitimate source and then call to verify the issue.

Frank Abagnale, who was the subject of the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can,” speaks to a crowd of around 350 at the King Kamehameha Golf Club on Saturday morning. Abagnale said that the key to stopping a scam is simple: “Stop. Verify.” -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“It is simple as that,” he told around 350 people at the King Kamehameha Golf Club. “Stop. Verify.”

Abagnale has joined forces with AARP’s Fraud Watch Network and also spoke on Oahu last week. He has been touring with AARP for several years and visits 10 states every year. His talks in Hawaii have been attended by full houses.

At 16 years old, Abagnale said, he bolted out of a New York state courtroom after being asked by a judge during divorce proceedings if he wanted to live with his mother or his father.

“I started to cry,” Abagnale recalled Saturday.

The judge called a 10-minute recess as the teen ran out the doors. But by the time his parents went after him, Abagnale was gone and soon started to weave a web of fraud and deceit to support himself.

Abagnale forged more than $2.5 million in checks and posed as an airline pilot (although he never flew a plane), a doctor and a lawyer before his capture at age 21 in France.

He spent time in French and Swedish prisons for his crimes. He served around four years of his 12-year sentence in U.S. federal prison but was allowed to work for the government.

After his prison term ended and Abagnale fulfilled his required time with the government, he continued to work with the FBI.

While the movie somewhat glamorized Abagnale’s life, he said that he’s not proud of his past. People come up to him and say how brilliant he was, but “I was just a child,” Abagnale said.

“I know people are fascinated with what I did 50 years ago. I look at some (and it) was immoral, illegal, unethical. A burden I live with, every single day of my life.”

Abagnale said that he knew he would be caught.

“Only a fool would think otherwise. The law sometimes sleeps, but that law never dies.”

Abagnale spent many holidays away from his family and, as a 19-year-old on the run, he would cry himself to sleep.

He was on the run and not with his family when his father died after hitting his head in a slip-and-fall incident.

Abagnale remembers his father giving each of his four children kisses at night and whispering “I love you” in their ears.

Now 69, Abagnale, who lives in South Carolina, said there is nothing more rewarding than being a good husband and a great “daddy.”

During Saturday’s talk of more than an hour, Abagnale offered some common-sense tips as well as some shocking information on how easy it is to have one’s identification stolen.

For example, he warns people to remove the hard drive in digital copy machines before selling or disposing of them.

Criminals know that a hard drive could still be in the machine and all they have to do is plug in a cable and plug it into a computer. Everything that has printed will be downloaded to the criminal’s computer.

Abagnale said that CBS News did a story on the matter and randomly bought used copiers. When they hooked up the used copiers to a computer, they found that one contained information from a police department’s sex crimes unit, another came from a large insurance company.

He also warns of posting too much information on social media. While not opposed to social media, he cautions about how much should be shared.

For example, he warns people not to give away dates of birth and birthplace information that can make it easier for identity thieves to piece together personal information.

He also cautions using mug shot-type photos of oneself as a Facebook profile photo that can easily assist facial recognition tools in finding people. For example, someone could use a cellphone to take photos of people at the airport and then use that photo to find a person’s Facebook page.

As for the Equifax data breach this year, in which Social Security numbers and other sensitive information of about 143 million Americans were exposed, Abagnale said, “This is a breach that did not need to occur.

“Hackers wait for an open door and took advantage of it.”

He said the breaches occur when someone neglects something or someone does something he or she is not supposed to.

Abagnale had strong words for the company, saying it took Equifax a while before officials let the public know of the breach, and senior managers sold their company stock prior to the announcement.

He added that Equifax is looking to make money off of the incident by offering free credit monitoring for one year, but there will be a charge for monitoring in the future.

Abagnale said that, in these types of breaches, personal information such as a name, Social Security number and dates of birth are not easily or cannot be changed, so this type of information is held for about a year before it is sold or used by thieves. That means victims will not notice anything suspicious in their credit until two or three years down the line, so an initial credit monitoring program will not help.

For victims of the Equifax breach, Abagnale recommends looking at freezing one’s credit so that no one can get a loan or buy a car in the victim’s name, for example. But there are fees for freezing and unfreezing credit.

Abagnale said that, for him, freezing his credit is an option as he owns his own house and is not looking to buy a car.

Another option would be to use a credit monitoring service that can help see who is checking your credit.

For more information on Abagnale, see www.abagnale.com. His Oahu talk can be found on AARP Hawaii’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AARPHawaii. AARP Fraud Watch Helpline can be reached toll-free at (877) 908-3360.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.