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Q&A: Former fraudster Frank Abagnale offers IT security advice

Nobody cares about ethics, says the Catch Me If You Can man

By Don Tennant
October 18, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - GRAPEVINE, Texas -- At Computerworld's Storage Networking World conference here yesterday, 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 -- spoke with Computerworld about ethics, computer crime and security risks faced by IT professionals.

Excerpts from that interview follow:

Suppose you'd been born in 1990. 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? 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 checks 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 check you've ever seen -- probably 10 times better than the check American Airlines uses.

Forty years ago, I wouldn't know who signs American's checks; 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 check. A world of too much information and the technology make it very easy to do today what I did 40 years ago.

Frank Abagnale
Frank Abagnale

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



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