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Frank Abagnale, the 'Catch Me' con man on the Technology of Fraud

Abagnale_photo From the Miami Herald, a lecture from the Catch Me if You Can con man:

When [Frank] Abagnale, 58, did it more than 30 years ago, the process of stealing someone's identity was simple, if a bit time-consuming. It required going to the county clerk's office, finding the name and Social Security number of a dead child, asking for a copy of the birth certificate and using that certificate to obtain a driver's license. With the Social Security number and driver's license, the financial world was his oyster -- and still is for today's crooks.

MUCH EASIER NOW

''It was all on paper,'' he said. "Now it's all done online. Electronic records just make it easier.''

To illustrate, he pulled up a copy of a mortgage document he obtained electronically about Porter Goss, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. representative from Florida. The Social Security numbers of Goss and his wife were part of the document, though they were crossed out on the PowerPoint screen onstage.

''Technology breeds crime,'' said Abagnale, who designed the birth certificate form now used in Florida. There are ''no con men anymore because the victim will never see them. They can be a thousand miles away.'' While banks and companies lose laptops and other records containing sensitive personal information, kids with cellphones secretly shoot pictures of checks being written in checkout lines of grocery stores. They can blow up the images on a computer and get all the information they need to commit bank fraud.

''Fraud has just gotten easier,'' he said. "I never in my life saw a simpler crime.''

It's interesting that he thinks there are no more con men to be met in person. Obviously he hasn't had much exposure to the subject of Internet dating sites where fraud is rampant and the whole purpose of it is to meeting someone under false pretenses, sometimes just for sex, and sometimes for financial gain. (Dating sites are not my thing, but I've been told Tales of Terror by older single women with experience in that area.)

Further, though, the culture of the Internet promotes the idea of assuming an alias with the idea that this gives the Netizen more personal freedom. But freedom to do what? Yes, it affords the possibility of expressing political and sexual opinions while keeping one's job in an oppressive corporate environment. But as I have argued before, this is a very slippery slope. Teaching people to assume aliases teaches them a way to avoid responsibility for their own actions.

It will be interesting to see how much this carries over into daily life: Will there be a broadening of the use of aliases, not just by, as it were, the usual suspects, but by people who would not otherwise have felt the need of additional personae in real life. And how far will this extend?

Regarding Abagnale, his website bio explains:

Mr. Abagnale was the subject of a major motion picture entitled "Catch Me If You Can", directed by Steven Spielberg with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. "Catch Me If You Can" is currently in development for a television series. The series will be produced by DreamWorks Television.

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