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Frank Abagnale breaks his silence

Former cheque forger whose life story was turned into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio finally agrees to an interview

At Computerworld’s Storage Networking World conference, Frank Abagnale gave a keynote presentation on his life as an imposter and fraudster, a story that was told in the book and subsequent Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me If You Can. Prior to his presentation, Abagnale – now a lecturer and consultant who works extensively with the FBI and other clients – agreed to be interviewed for the first time in many years about ethics, computer crime and the security risks faced by IT professionals.

Excerpts from that interview follow:

CDN: Suppose you’d been born in 1980. How much of what you got away with 40 years ago do you think you’d be able to get away with as a 17-year-old today?

Frank Abagnale: It would be 4,000 times easier to do today, what I did 40 years ago, and I probably wouldn’t go to prison for it. Technology breeds crime – it always has, it always will. When I forged cheques 40 years ago, it required a $1 million printing press that required three journeymen printers to operate. I had to build scaffolding on the side of it so I could operate it by myself. There were color separations, negatives, plates, typesetting chemicals. Today, I sit down at a laptop, pick any company I want, go to their Web site, capture their logo, like American Airlines. I put it up on a check with a 747 in the background taking off. Fifteen minutes later, I have the most beautiful American Airlines cheque you’ve ever seen – probably 10 times better than the cheque American Airlines uses. Forty years ago, I wouldn’t know who signs American’s cheque; I wouldn’t know where American Airlines keeps its accounts payable account. Today, I would just call their accounts receivable, ask them for their wiring instructions. They’d tell me where they bank, on what street in what city, what their account number is. I call back and ask for a copy of their annual report, and on page three will be the signature of their chairman of the board, the CEO, the CFO, the treasurer. I scan it onto glossy white paper, with camera-ready art – and I have the cheque. A world of too much information and the technology make it very easy to do today what I did 40 years ago.

CDN: Do you think there’s much similarity between what drove you and whatever it is that drives a 17-year-old hacker today?

F.A.: No, mine was strictly a matter of survival. I was a kid who ran away from home at 16 and ended up in New York. A lot of people back then got into Haight-Ashbury, the hippie scene, the drug scene. No one was going to hire a 16-year-old, so I started out by lying about my age in order to secure a job. One thing led to another and it became more of a case of people were after me, so I had to stay a step ahead of them. I don’t think I was out to set any goals or to make X amount of money. I was very creative, so it became more of a game as time went on.

CDN: Is there anything we can do to make illicit computer-related activity a less attractive pursuit for young people?

F.A.: There are about four reasons why we have crime to begin with. One of them is, of course, that we live in an extremely unethical society. We live in a society that doesn’t teach ethics at home, a society that doesn’t teach ethics in school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. We live in a society where you can’t find a four-year college course on ethics. I have three sons who went through graduate school; only the one who went to law school had a course even offered on ethics. So today you have a lot of young people who have no character, no ethics and they find no problem in defrauding somebody or stealing from somebody or cheating somebody. Until we change that, crime is just going to get easier, faster, more global and harder to detect. I’ve spent 32 years at the FBI and I’ve witnessed crime only got a lot easier to do. Obviously, there’s a lot less threat of being caught. When I was caught, I was just a teenager, and they sent me to prison for five years. Today, I’d probably get probation and community service; I might get 18 months and serve six months in jail. So there really is no threat of going to prison to keep somebody in line. I really think the more technology there is in the world, the more you have to instill character and ethics. You can build all the security systems in the world; you can build the most sophisticated technology, and all it takes is one weak link – someone who operates that technology – to bring it all down. People don’t like to talk about that issue, because they think it’s over-simplified. But the fact is, in all my experience, that’s where the problem lies.

CDN: As someone who has had a lot of experience with the law-enforcement authorities in other countries, how would you rate the effectiveness of international cooperation in the fight against computer crime?

F.A.: It’s getting a little better, but you’re dealing with a lot of countries like China, Nigeria, Libya and Russia where we really don’t have that cooperation. Unless it’s a huge dollar amount or some international incident, it’s very difficult to get the authorities to do anything about it. The American authorities or Interpol talking to Beijing about doing something about a hacker somewhere in China is unlikely to bring about any law enforcement activity.

CDN: What’s the single biggest oversight companies make with respect to security?

F.A.: First of all, there is no foolproof system. If you believe you have a foolproof system, then you have failed to take into consideration the creativity of fools. My experience has been that is if there’s a man or woman who designed it, there’s a man or woman who can defeat it. So I think most companies fail to take into consideration that they’ve developed this great system, but then they’ve failed to look at the person who’s operating the system, the person who has information about the system. So we have to pay a lot more attention to that weak link – the human part of the system.

CDN: What’s the single most important thing that readers will read in your new book, Stealing Your Life, that’s not available to them from any other source?

F.A.:This is the fifth book I’ve written on crime. I just try again to bring people up to date – this book is all about identity theft. I first wrote about identity theft in the 1980s in a book called Crimes of the Next Generation, and I talked about it before it was ever given a name – that it would come to pass that we would have people stealing identities. You have to make people aware of the risk and show them all the ways people do it so that it opens their eyes to how simple it is to do it, and then on the other hand, show them simple ways to protect themselves as well, without going out and spending a fortune doing that.

CDN: You dedicated the book to Joseph Shea, the FBI agent whose mission it was to arrest you. Why?

F.A.:He and I were friends for 30 years; he died at the age of 88 just about a year ago. He was a great help up until his death. I watched his two daughters grow up and get married; I attended their weddings. He watched my children grow up. He was obviously a big part of my life in getting me out of prison and getting me to work with the government. He was someone who saw that I had something to offer and he was very big on helping me do that. I think when he started out, he thought I was some master criminal and he was going to catch me, but when he came to the realization that I was just a kid and I was a runaway, being a father, he had a lot more compassion.

CDN: Any regrets?

F.A.:Obviously, I wish I hadn’t lived the life I started out living, and I wish I could live that over. But I can’t do that.

CDN: On the other hand, one could argue that if you hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what you have in the past 32 years.

F.A.:That’s true. It’s a life I wouldn’t want to have to live over again, even though I know where it’s brought me today. But I believe there’s a purpose and a reason things happen, and I’m just very fortunate that I grew up in a great country where you get a second chance to start your life over again and do someth