Scammers have upped their game. A former conman shares tips for protecting yourself from fraudsters.

“We give away way too much information and then we wonder why people steal our identities,” says former crook Frank Abagnale.
Frank Abagnale Jr.
Frank Abagnale, the subject of the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” is a former teenage con artist turned respected security consultant.Jeffrey Langlois / Palm Beach Daily News
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By Herb Weisbaum

There's never been a better time to be a con artist.

Modern technology makes it easier than ever for criminals to create successful scams while hiding their identity from law enforcement. You could be targeted by a fraudster half a world away, sitting in their pajamas, drinking coffee in the kitchen while on their laptop.

The global cost of cybercrime is almost $600 billion a year, according to a 2018 report from McAfee. And that staggering figure does not include the billions lost to scams and rip-offs that are not internet-related.

So, how do the fraudsters do it? How do they manipulate us into giving them huge amounts of money and our most sensitive personal information?

“They’re very good at convincing you that they are who they say they are and convincing you to do things that you probably normally wouldn’t do,” said Frank Abagnale, a former con artist turned respected security consultant.

Steven Spielberg's 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale, was based on Abagnale’s life — a teenage con artist in the 1960s who ultimately got caught and served five years in prison.

Abagnale, now 71, is a security consultant who trains FBI agents. His new book, “Scam Me If You Can,” published by Penguin Random House, is a guide for consumers to protect themselves from scammers.

We had a chance to talk about how the scammers have upped their game in recent years and what you need to do to protect yourself. Here’s part of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity. (You can listen to the entire interview by clicking here.)

When it comes to scam victims, we always think of seniors. But as you point out, anyone can be scammed.

ABAGNALE: In writing the book, I was amazed that millennials are actually scammed more often than seniors. But seniors lose more money because they have more money.

We absolutely live in a way-too-much-information world. We give away too much information and then we wonder why people steal our identities and why people go ahead and scam us.

I remind people all the time that if you simply told me your date of birth and where you were born, that's 98 percent of [what someone needs for] stealing your identity, so you should never tell anybody those two pieces of information.

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We absolutely live in a way-too-much-information world. We give away too much information and then we wonder why people steal our identities and why people go ahead and scam us.

Frank Abagnale

Does social media make this worse?

ABAGNALE: Yes, because we tell everybody everything — where we're going, our children's names, our parent's names, our wife’s name, what we did yesterday. And so they [the fraudsters] use that to make those phishing emails or those scams sound so real.

For example, we have the grandparent’s scam, a very, very common scam. The phone rings, the caller ID says it's the police department, so you pick up the phone. They tell you they arrested your grandson for DWI. They give you the grandson's name. They tell you what kind of car he was driving. They tell you he had a passenger, which was his girlfriend. They know the girlfriend's name and you know the girlfriend's name. They tell you the parent's name.

Obviously, they've gotten all of that from social media. But you figure this absolutely must be the police department. How can anybody else have all that information? So it is very, very convincing [when they ask you to wire bail money to get your grandchild out of jail].

And because of technology, they’re able to spoof or fake nearly everything, right?

ABAGNALE: Yeah, so even when they get you on the phone and say they're from Medicare or Social Security and you kind of doubt them, they'll say, ‘Why don't you just look up the Medicare number and then look at your caller ID, and you'll see that's the number I'm calling you from.’ But spoofing the call or having the caller ID say whatever I want it to say — police department, Medicare, U.S. Treasury, IRS — is a very simple thing for scammers and hackers to do.

Every scam is different, but most of them have a few things in common; red flags that we should be looking for. As you point out in the book, one of them is the sense of urgency: I need you to do this right now.

ABAGNALE: Yeah. At some point I'm going to ask you for money, but it has to be right now. You'll have to wire me the money. You have to give me a credit card over the phone. You have to go down to Walmart and get a Green Dot [debit] card and stay on the phone with me and then read me the numbers on the back of the card.

So, I might [pretend to] be your bank calling about suspicious activity on your credit card, but somewhere along in the conversation, I'm going to ask you to tell me the three digits on the back of your credit card or verify your credit card number or Social Security number.

Those are the red flags: You didn't solicit that call, you didn't solicit that e-mail. They called you. You need to make sure you know who is on the other end before you give them any money or any information. If you can remember those two red flags, you can avoid a lot of scams.

And by knowing who's on the other end of the line, it means you initiated the phone call.

ABAGNALE: Right. Or that you're simply saying, ‘If you are my bank, that's fine. Let me call you back. I will look at the number on the back of my credit card. I'll call the call center and ask for you or I'll ask if they placed the call.’ That's all you have to do. It takes a minute to verify, but it's certainly better than giving someone information or giving them your money.

What about people who say they're never going to get me? I bet those are the kind of people that can get scammed.

ABAGNALE: Absolutely. Listen, I know I can be scammed. And obviously, we've had a lot of extremely well-educated people who have been scammed. [And if it happens to you] you have to tell somebody, so they [the crooks] can't keep doing it to somebody else. If you don't tell anybody, they [law enforcement] can't stop it. So you recognize that there's nothing to be ashamed of; anybody can be scammed.

How about a few final words of wisdom before we let you go?

ABAGNALE: If you make it easy for someone to steal from you, and it's very unfortunate, but chances are someone will. So don't make it easy. Educate yourself. You can't rely on the police, you can't rely on the government, you can't rely on the bank to protect you. So be proactive. Educate yourself about these things, so you don't get scammed.

Look for these common warning signs

In his book, Abagnale highlights some common warning signs that signal you’re about to be scammed. Here are few of them:

  • Request for action: If you’re told to do something, such as “write this down” or “tell me how many bank accounts you have,” there’s a good chance you’re being played. Once con artists get you to do something, “they have taken control of the conversation and put you in a more vulnerable position,” Abagnale writes.
  • Demand for fees: If you’ve really won a contest, sweepstakes or lottery you will not be asked to make a payment of any kind to claim your winnings: No shipping charge, no handling fee and no tax payment. Prize offers that require a payment to win are scams.
  • Act now or lose: Be skeptical of anything that demands urgency, he warns. “You must decide today,” or “I need an answer in the next few hours,” is the lead-up to a scam.
  • Request for untraceable payment: If you’re required to send a payment via wire transfer, a gift card or some other untraceable source, beware. “Legitimate businesses have legitimate banking details that can be verified,” Abagnale cautions.

NEXT: Use payment apps like Venmo, Zelle and CashApp? Here's how to protect yourself from scammers

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