One-on-one with Frank Abagnale, Jr. on identity theft, combating fraud, and staying safe online

Yesterday, I joined several hundred seniors at Microsoft for a captivating presentation by legendary security consultant Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose story was the basis for the hit movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio. After the presentation, Frank generously made time to sit down with me for a one-on-one conversation about identity theft, combating fraud, and staying safe online. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: I really enjoyed your presentation.


ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Can you talk a little bit about medical identity theft? What are some of the trends we’re seeing that are really disruptive and harmful?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Medical identity theft is kind of a new trend we’re seeing, where people would actually go into a clinic or a hospital because they need medical treatment, but they have no insurance. So in doing so (filling out the application), they list my name, my Social Security number, my date of birth, my personal information, and basically end up having the service done, but my insurance company being billed (or me directly being billed) and I end up getting a bill saying that I had this treatment at this clinic.

What’s not easy to do is when you call and say That wasn’t me! I wasn’t in that clinic! You really almost have to prove that it wasn’t you.

We are protected under the Fair Credit Reporting Act for other types of identity, like your credit card and things like that. That does not cover medical identity theft, so some of these collection agencies do go after individuals, even though it wasn’t them that made that charge.

So we’re starting to see that trend now of people getting medical services using somebody else’s identity.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Is this an area where the law simply hasn’t caught up yet?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: They’re going to have to change the laws to take away the liability from the consumer, so the consumer’s not held liable for treatment that you got using my name. Right now, that doesn’t exist. So, I can’t even see my medical records because now you’re on my medical records, and the HIPAA laws don’t allow me to see them, because then I’d see your medical records and treatment. So that’s kind of ridiculous. So I think they’re going to have to change some federal laws to address this issue of medical identity theft, which will become more and more of a problem.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Now, you work with the FBI, and have for a long time. And a lot of laws that need updating are federal laws. But of course, we have the fifty states, and they’re often called the laboratory of democracy. Do you have any specific advice for state-level policymakers? What are things that they can do to protect citizens against these cybercrimes and identity theft problems?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: You know, I’ve worked with the FBI for four decades — for forty years — and I get to go out and speak. I spoke at the state attorneys general conference, both their summer workshops and their winter workshops. I had all fifty state attorneys general in front of me. I work directly with the U.S. Attorneys. I teach at the Academy, where we teach U.S. Attorneys. What I try to do is to correct things that are very obvious. Like taking Social Security numbers off of 1040s. Making a Selective Service card be put in an envelope, so people can’t read what you put on there — your Social Security number, your date of birth. Removing the Social Security number from a Medicare card. Changing it off the military ID card.

I’m a strong believer that the government needs to lead. Whether it’s federal, state, county, or city. The government should be saying, this is the proper way you handle this, and this is the proper way you implement this. Instead, the government is way behind. It’s American corporations and businesses who say, Well, this is a problem. We need to come up with a solution and fix it. It’s ridiculous that the government should be behind.

And the government fails to do a lot of things. It ends up it’s the taxpayer who loses, whether it be their identity, or they’re actually losing the taxpayers’ money through fraudulent activity that doesn’t really need to occur.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Here in Washington — and also in Oregon, which is our neighbor — we do a lot of vote-by-mail. In fact, we’re almost exclusively vote by mail, and when people take their ballots to the post office, they’re supposed to sign the outside envelope. Their name is already on there, because it’s been printed; there’s a barcode, there’s their address. They’re supposed to sign to show that it’s them, and that signature has to match what’s on file with the elections officials. And that’s just going into the mailstream with their signature and their name on the outside of an envelope. Is that an insecure practice?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yes. And see, that’s ridiculous. But even better than that is: I’m on Medicare, because I’m sixty-seven years old, but I don’t collect Social Security. So for that reason, they can’t take my Medicare payment — which is about four hundred dollars a month — out of my Social Security check. So they have to send me a bill every month.

And I have to pay it. When they send me the bill, CMS — Medicare — tells me, Put your Social Security number on the check stub under Memo.

I said, You’re out of your mind. Now, you’re asking me to write a check, and have all that information that’s on the check, and then give you my Social Security number on top of that, and put it on there? So if someone sees it, they don’t have to do anything. They just have to see it, and they have all the information about me.

So those are the kind of things that I mean are more common sense things that you could go in and easily fix, and they’re not doing. And even when you bring it to their attention, and say this is absurd, because this is what somebody could do with that, they don’t go in and fix it.

So it’s just ridiculous.

And I have to tell you — and I will email you this piece because it’s hard to believe — but a couple years ago, a woman in the State of [Oregon] applied for a state income tax [refund] and claimed that she earned $3.5 million, and that the state owed her $2.1 million. And the state actually sent her a refund on a card — on a debit card — for $2.1 million. The woman was using the card for several months, but she lost the card.

So then she called the state tax revenue office in [Oregon] and said, I lost my card, I need a new card. And when they [finally] did [look], auditors saw it and said, Whoa, how could this be this big a refund? And that’s how they caught her. And I had that case. Just absurd.

And those are the kind of things that go on all the day.

We arrested a doctor in Michigan who was a cancer doctor. He treated four hundred and thirty-eight patients who came to see him. Every patient, he told them they had cancer. They didn’t have cancer. He treated them with chemo and billed Medicare thirty-three million dollars. We finally caught him; a judge gave him forty-five years, just two months ago, in prison. These are the kind of things that go on all the time. Millions and billions of dollars. But again, there should be a mechanism in place to catch these things.

So when we talk about food stamps, which is done on a card, we look at a delicatessen in Brooklyn that two years ago, is taking two hundred thousand dollars in food stamps. Now it’s taking two million.

So then, when you go down there, it’s a twelve hundred square foot store. So what they’re doing is when you come in with your card, they say, How much you have on that card? Two hundred dollars? I’ll give you a hundred dollars cash for the card, and then I’ll let you buy the other hundred in whiskey and wine — which they’re not allowed to use — on the other part of the card.

These people are driving Rolls-Royces when we go arrest them. They’re driving Ferraris. They have two condominiums. But you wanted to say to the people administering the program, Didn’t it look a little suspicious that the guy went from $200,000 to two million? What is it? He’s got people lined around his building waiting to come in with their card?

I mean, it’s such obvious stuff that it’s absurd that it goes on.

So, how can you blame the criminal for taking advantage of it? And he realizes the government has all the money and the government’s easiest person to rob, whether it be state or federal, because they’re doing the least things to prevent it.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So, in other words, people go after the government, ’cause that’s where the money is.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: The easy target. You know, the old Willie Sutton: Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. Why do you rob the government? Because that’s where the money is.

Plus, it’s easier than to try to rob a bank.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So, is the problem with people missing these obvious red flags that there isn’t enough accountability, or is it just that because public servants who work on the taxpayer’s dime are basically doing their jobs, but they’re they’re not costing a company money. It’s not that there’s profits at risk, but it’s the entire public at risk. Is that sort of like a socialization of risk that’s happening? Is that the problem?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yeah, and you know, I hate to have to say that, because of my association to the government, but that’s how it is.

One, it’s not their money. Two, nobody wants to take responsibility. No one really wants to do a whole lot about it, you know, whereas in a private company, you have people to answer to. There’s stockholders, or shareholders; there’s people that expect a profit.

In the government, there’s really nobody answering to anybody, so nobody’s really doing anything about it. And then, we impose some things, too, that make it difficult. In defense of the IRS, for example… they process a hundred and fifty-three million returns during the month of April.

Now, years ago, when you filed a paper return, and you said to the government, You owe me $2,100 back as a refund, they had eight weeks, ten weeks, to get you that refund. So during that time, they checked your W-2, they checked it across the state’s wage-earning files and so on, and they investigated your return. Now, the government says, you’re paying electronically, and you file electronically, [so] they tell the IRS, you need to pay these people within fifteen days.

Well, the IRS [worker] says, I can’t… I can’t look at, I can’t check all these things in fifteen days. I have millions and millions of returns.

So, again, Congress is mandating something they can’t physically do, and in the end, the criminal’s taking advantage of Congress doing that. Where, if you ask most Americans, Would you mind waiting a few more weeks for your return if you knew it was going to save the taxpayers billions of dollars from criminals getting the taxpayers’ money? They’d say, yes, but they don’t.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: And that’s the kind and sort of question that has like a no-brainer answer, right?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Right. Exactly.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So, you know, you ask those questions, people will say yes, I’d like to be more secure. In fact, people are always talking about the liberty and privacy versus security trade-off. And people say they value security, but it seems like we’re less secure with everything moving online, but we don’t have a long-term plan for securing that data that we’re moving online.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: No, and we, as ourselves, give away so much information, you know. We get on and tell our mother’s maiden names, our pet’s names, where we went on vacation, where we’re going on vacation. You know, what kind of car we drive, what places we like to go eat. And there are people who take that information, because they can build profiles. There’s so much they can do with it.

But the thing is, you can’t con a con man, and that’s because the con man is already thinking with a deceptive mind, and he already sees your scam coming at ’em. Most Americans are honest, and because they’re honest, they don’t have a deceptive mind. They’re not sitting there thinking about, well, what would someone do with that piece of information? What could they do with that? That’s why it’s so important to educate people, to give them the proper tools.

So, when I go out and speak at a lot of universities, I’m really surprised by the kids’ questions, because it’s more about their personal security than it is about How’d you like Leonardo DiCaprio playing you in the movie? It’s more about, how do I use Facebook safely? What is it okay to do online, and not okay to do? And so, you know, they’re concerned. But they want to know how: Where’s the information?

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: One of the things that has really bothered me over the years is I’ll get some sort of form or application that’ll ask me for my Social Security number. I’ve never felt comfortable giving that out. I don’t like giving it out, but they say they have to have it… and a lot of these companies collecting this information say they really need it. Is there any way for consumers and customers to stand up and say, no we don’t want to give you a Social Security number?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: No, they don’t need it, because federal law says… on your hand, you can count how many times you’re required to provide your Social Security number by law. And that, you know, [includes] things [like] when you apply for credit, when you apply [for a job], your employer has the right to have your Social Security number for collecting taxes. The IRS… law enforcement can ask you for your Social Security number.

But when you go to the doctor’s office, the doctor really doesn’t need to have your Social Security number. The problem is, if you say to the doctor, I’m not giving it to you; I’m not giving you my Social Security number, the doctor’s going to go through your insurance company and ultimately get it from your insurance company, who does have your Social Security number.

So they find a way to get it anyway. But most of the time, you shouldn’t be offering to give it to people, and if somebody gets it, and you see really no reason for them to have it, then you should just tell them no. And a lot of times if you just stand firm, so no I’m not giving it to you, they’ll go around and do whatever they’re supposed to do anyway.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Right. If you’re filling out one of those forms that, let’s say, an independent contractor and so forth fills out… would you recommend that people get an EIN that’s separate from their SSN?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yes, absolutely. I always use a federal tax ID number, even when I was just me, and I was self-employed. I wasn’t going to go around giving everybody my Social Security number. So I have to have that if I’m going to pay you and send you a 1099 [and the other party says] I need your Social Security number. I just gave him a federal tax ID number, and that’s what you should do. If I was that independent contractor, that plumber, that business, I would never be giving them a DBA [doing business as]. I would never be giving them my Social Security number. I would just be giving a federal tax ID number.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: And people can easily get those.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yeah, it’s not difficult. You just apply for it, and they give you a number, and that’s the end of it. Yeah, it’s not difficult to do.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: President Obama recently announced he was creating a U.S. Digital service to try to get some of the really talented folks who have maybe been working in the private sector to lend their energy, their talents, and their expertise of the public sector. Is that something we need to do to better combat identity theft and improve cybersecurity?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yeah, because I don’t think we have the people, the manpower, or the brain power in Washington, D.C. to do that. I think this is where you need to go out and get outside help, because a lot of those people don’t have the knowledge or the experience or the background or the training to deal with a lot of those problems. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the government going outside the government and getting the people that know how to fix these problems and get them to come in… and at least ask advice on how to go about fixing these problems.

The only thing I would say: If these people come in, and they give you good advice, and you know it’s good advice, then implement it! Don’t just listen to them and then walk away and [go back to] business as usual. Otherwise, you’re wasting more money.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: One last question. A lot of people I know are people who make lots of active use of social media. They’re on social media all the time: Twitter, Facebook. What are two or three common best practices you recommend to strengthen people’s social identity?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: It’s real simple. One: Don’t put a straightforward photograph of yourself on Facebook. [Two]: Don’t state where you were born on Facebook, or your date of birth. [Three]: Don’t make statements that you don’t want someone to read that you said.

So, if you’re an eighteen-year-old and you make racial slurs, someone’s going to read those racial slurs five years from now when they go to give you a job, and that could hinder you getting that job. Or putting a picture of you that was a picture of you nude on a beach with a bunch of drug paraphernalia all over your body, knowing that some employer down the road may look at that, and that’s going to be held against you.

So just be [aware]. Realize that everything you write, someone’s going to read besides the people you want to read it, and that it’s all retrievable. So you’ve just got to be careful, again, not to be giving away things. Stop and think: Do I really want to put that out on social media where someone may see that, later on, down the road, four or five years from now.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Right. So you have to think long-term.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Long term. Absolutely.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Thank you very much.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Thank you, Andrew. It was a pleasure.