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November 2006

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.


''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.

Food for Thought, Served in Several Courses

This is Year's Best season for us, and so I've been reading lots of short fiction, which ought to give me a lot to say in this space, but instead leaves me sort of stunned. If you have a favorite science fiction or fantasy short story published in 2006, now is the time to tell me about it.

Mathlove800_1 One thing I found out about this weekend is Rudy Rucker's podcast of his fine story, "Chu and the Nants" published in  Asimov's. I told David about it and he was pleased I liked it because it is part of Rudy's next novel, Postsingular, which David is publishing at Tor in a year. Meanwhile, Rudy's new novel, Mathematicians in Love, just came out. Put it on your Christmas list.

On a not entirely unrelated topic, I have been surveying the Nerdosphere for worthy math and computation-related blogs, and have noticed the interesting phenomenon that there is a new generation of math and physics grad students who blog. Most of these are very low traffic sites  that would raise hardly a blip on the Technorati rankings, but seem to me indicative of an interesting technological shift.

Historically, physicists were among the first to have web sites (my father had the second in the State of Washington), however scientists have been a bit slower to embrace blogs than they were the web as such. When I've had more time to survey them, I may provide more targeted links.

Here are some blogs that caught my attention while I was surfing for math and math-related blogs:

  • Cellular Automata in Bio-Medicine by Prof. Gershom Zajicek M.D.who is "exploring ways to boost healing processes in a diseases, and particularly in cancer."
  • Anima ex Machina: (has an interesting pic of my friend Kovas presenting a paper last week)
  • Gooseania: My friends invited me over for dinner on Tuesday, just after my theorem was pronounced dead and so I immediately rejected their offer, worried that I'd better get working on something new.
  • NeverEndingBooks: A very pretty blog. The author has two categories for his posts: On Topic and Off Topic, and . . .
  • Backreaction, the blog of Canadian theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and Stefan Scherer, a physicist who now works in scientific publishing in Germany.

Further to the subject of data, I've had a look at David Sifry's much discussed State of the Blogosphere post. The part I found most interesting  is the discussion of splogs and how Technorati deals with them.

. . . some of the new blogs in our index are Spam blogs or 'splogs'. The good news is Technorati has gotten much better at preventing these kinds of blogs from getting into our indexes in the first place, which may be a factor in the slight slowing in the average of new blogs created each day.

The spikes in red on the chart above shows the increased activity that occurs when spammers create massive numbers of fake blogs and try to get them into our indexes. As the chart shows, we’ve done a much better job over the last quarter at nearly eliminating those red spikes. While last quarter I reported about 8% of new blogs that get past our filters and make it into the index are splogs, I’m happy to report that that number is now more like 4%. As always, we’ll continue to be hyper-focused on making sure that new attacks are spotted and eliminated as quickly as possible.

This relates to something I have been worrying a bit about lately, which is astroturf blogs in quantity founded for an unpleasant and possibly illegal, though not commercial, purpose. I won't link to the example of the phenomenon I have in mind, because that would give them traffic.

If, for example, sometime in the near future, a cult were to order its members to all found blogs to attack a particular individual or institution, how would search engines like Technorati or Google react? Would this be seen as covered by freedom of expression, or would it be seen as analogous to to the founding of many erection-enhancement pill blogs? How will this be dealt with? Could offending an organization with fanatical members ruin your reputation on the web permanently? Or is this something that people like Dave Sifry will have to start monitoring? 

And, if it were happening now, and you were to know about it, what would you be able to do about it? 

And what if you were a target?  What would you do?

Write to Dave Sifry? Call the FBI? Hire an attorney? Hire a publicist? How relevant and enforceable are, for example, the cyberstalking laws?

Food for thought.

...then there is the potion involving camphor oil in the bathroom and the devil mask glued to the dishwasher...

Last week, David was out of town at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin on a day when I had three hours worth of conference calls and my son had been sent home sick from school. We have portable phones, and so I was walking around trying to keep up with the kids while I was on the phone. But this effort was not entirely successful. The following is a series of emails I send David that evening:

6:42 PM: Peter came home sick. Will probably be home tomorrow because he had a low fever at school. 3 hours+ phone conferences  . . . Kids fighting. Put in jamas. Will feed them soup soon.

6:44 PM: Oh, and someone ground all the bay leaves in the house in the spice grinder and Elizabeth just tried to roast a lollipop on a light bulb.

6:54 PM: Oh, and Belinda [the cat] is apparently the culprit with the spice grinder, at least as told by Liz. And then there is the potion involving camphor oil in the bathroom and the devil mask glued to the dishwasher. . . .

Now that a week has gone by, I am better able to see the humor in the situation. (Don't try this at home!)

Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best: A review of Snakes in Suits

006083772101_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v54208143_Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work  by Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Regan Books, 2006

I love this book. I read it in one sitting, more or less. I started reading it just after I cleared security at White Plains Airport and finished the last page as I touched down at my destination.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare is marketed and mostly reviewed as a business book on the problem of psychopathy in the workplace. For example MSNBC’s excerpt, coordinated with the authors’ appearance on the Today Show, is headlined “Snakes in Suits unmasks corporate psychos.” But what the book has to say is much more generally applicable and translates well to the larger context of daily life.

Snakes in Suits takes us beyond the stereotypes about psychopaths that emerge from news coverage focusing on serial killers, and from horror novelists’ attempts to delve into that same material. The psychopaths portrayed and profiled in this book for the most part do not kill people and are not in jail. And this last is one important reason why you should read this book: Most of us in daily life do not have the opportunity to interview cannibals, as do some of those who specialize in the profiling of the criminally insane. If and when we meet a psychopath, it is much more likely to be at a cocktail party than in a death row jail cell. So the literature of the profiling of criminal psychopaths, with its talk of organized vs. disorganized crime scenes and such, is not likely to be all that helpful. In contrast, the psychopaths of Snakes in Suits are presented in much more familiar settings and contexts.

In the book’s preface, the authors explain why psychopaths often excel at talking their way through job interviews: They can be very charming, often possesses a disarming charisma, and tend to be skilled at social manipulation. (xi) Their “appearance of confidence, strength, and calm” makes them seem right for the job and make them stand out among other candidates. (xii) These same traits can also make them shine in other social contexts like parties or conferences or stand out as attractive in context like dating web sites or Internet discussion lists.

Hare is the author of a checklist of indicators of psychopathy, the Hare Psychopath Checklist—Revised (PCL-R), and so the book’s definition of psychopath is quite concise. While the book vividly describes the traits of psychopaths, the authors’ repeatedly emphasize that the term is a diagnostic category to be applied by a professional, and that while we may observe psychopathic traits in others (or in ourselves) this does not mean that the person in question is truly a psychopath, and so they caution against the broad application of the term.

Some of the characteristics of psychopaths I found interesting in this section were these: That the aggression and violence of psychopaths tends to be “instrumental”, i.e. a means toward an end, rather than impulsive (18). That “psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves.” (19) That psychopaths often live a parasitic lifestyle (20) and are often liars who will lie about even the most inconsequential things. (21)

One of the most interesting, from the standpoint of literary characterization of psychopaths, is that they tend to manifest a semantic aphasia:

[Hervey] Cleckly  . . . noted that psychopaths use language somewhat differently than other people; their sentence structure, choice of words and tempo (or beat) were different. (22)

The authors describe this further a little later in the book:

. . . many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people.  They make use of the fact that for most people the content of the message is less important than the way it is delivered. A confident, aggressive delivery style—often larded with jargon, clichés, and flowery phrases—makes up for the lack of substance and sincerity in their interactions with others. (38)

If this sounds like your new best friend, watch out! As the authors remark further down the page, psychopaths are “social chameleons” (38) which makes them “a near-perfect invisible human predator.” (39)

However, psychopathy is also a type of personality disorder, and so while psychopaths are in many ways very versatile, people with personality disorders tend to have “a limited range of ‘solutions’” to life’s problems. (40) So they also lack flexibility and the ability to change that people without personality disorders have.

A psychopath’s targeting of his victim goes through three phases: the Assessment Phase (43), the Manipulation Phase (48), and the Abandonment Phase (53). There are some interesting remarks along the way as the authors describe these phases. For example, in the discussion of the Assessment Phase:

. . . the psychopath is constantly sizing up the potential usefulness of an individual as a source of money, power, sex, or influence. People who have power, celebrity, or high social status are particularly attractive. (44)

In this section the authors’ also discuss the attractiveness of emergencies and disasters to psychopaths, who can find opportunities in the confusion: “psychopaths remorselessly use other people even when able-bodied and capable of supporting themselves.” (46) They also remark on psychopath’s attraction to life on the edge: “there is evidence that psychopaths need considerable novel stimulation to keep from becoming bored.” And here’s another notable line: “Sometimes their sense of superiority is so great that they say they are conferring a gift by letting their victims support them.” (48)

And so, on to the Manipulation Phase:

Following identification of individuals who may be useful to them, psychopaths begin to create a shroud of charm we have labeled the psychopathic fiction. This is the beginning of the manipulation phase.

The first goal here is to gain the trust of the individual through ingratiation and various impression-management techniques. (48)

The psychopath’s lack of social anxiety makes him more believable:

Unencumbered by social anxieties, fear of being found out, empathy, remorse, or guilt—some of nature’s brake pedals for anti-social behavior in humans—psychopaths tell a tale so believable, so entertaining, so creative, that many listeners instinctively trust them. (50)

And then comes the Abandonment Phase:

Once the psychopath has drained all the value from a victim—that is, when the victim is no longer useful—they abandon the victim and move on to someone else. (53)

The creepiest section of the book, and one of the most engaging as well, is the description of the “Psychopathic Bond” (pp. 74-79) in which the authors describe how the psychopath convinces his target that he is exactly the friend or lover the target has been looking for, that all secrets are safe with him:

Those who have been in long-term relationships with psychopaths describe them as the supreme psychologist or mind reader. The more they interacted wit the psychopath, the more they felt mesmerized by the facade. Many referred to their psychopathic partners as “soul mates” and reported how much they believed they had in common with the psychopath. It is even more disturbing to hear some victims’ reports—once they have been cut loose during the abandonment phase—that they miss the relationship and want the psychopath back in their lives. It is very difficult to believe that the relationship never really existed. (79)

The author’s describe a number of different roles a psychopath’s targets and victims can fulfill for the psychopath. Particularly memorable is the character of “Dorothy,” a bright young woman who ends up doing all the real work for a corporate psychopath, “Dave,” that gives him the credibility to rise within the organization.

"The whole idea, from concept to action plan, even the executive committee proposal presentation, was Dorothy's work. Dave just tapped into her and took her ideas as his own." (293)

Images_1"Dave." meanwhile, had been complaining about "Dorothy"'s job performance.

Other “Roles in the Psychopath’s Drama” are “Pawns, Patrons, and Patsies.” (Chapter 6)

Later in the book, the various scenarios begun earlier play themselves out, and the authors try to give their business audience practical advice on how to keep psychopaths out of their organizations. Then they give advice to individuals on how to unravel a psychopath’s complex web.

The book is most notable for its description of the problem rather than for its proposed solutions. How many people it will save from the malign influence of psychopaths, I don’t know. But at very least, once people have been through it, it will help them understand what happened to them.

But that is indeed the nature of the beast: The psychopath is our real life nosferatu. Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best.

Geoff & Annie on Halloween

On Halloween Night, after trick-or-treating, the kids conked out and went to sleep. I stayed home with them, and David went down to Jackson & Wheeler in the center of Pleasantville, to hear Geoff Hartwell & his band at Geoff's Blues Jam, held at Jackson & Wheeler every Tuesday night. Geoff and Annie, his girlfriend, wore spectacular costumes:


Photo by Kim Galibert.

Henry Gee has posted his novel online

Nature Editor Henry Gee writes:

Vonda McIntyre (thanks Vonda!) told me of Andrew Burt's site where you can post novels, stories, items of nonfiction -- indeed, any writing -- and I chose to take advantage of it by posting a novel and a short story.

The first is a novel, The Sigil. The second is a short story, Iko-Iko.

To read The Sigil, visit

To read Iko-Iko, visit

I have posted them for free, as I am more interested in knowing what people think of them than making any money (yet). I hope you enjoy them.


So after deciding I wasn't going to dress up, on a last-minute whim right before taking the kids trick-or-treating, I transformed myself into the Statue of Liberty. I'm told by our neighbors that the costume worked really well in the dark with me holding up a candle (I couldn't find any of our flashlights).


IMG_6350.JPGMy son Peter cycled through an endless variety of mix and match superhero and science fiction character costume parts, so I can't rightly say what he ended up being for Halloween.

Elizabeth had a similar impulse (as shown in this picture from last week). She was "Ariel with wings" as in the Disney mermaid, but with butterfly wings. She also deployed this foam rubber hand on a long handle, that I think is intended for washing one's back in the shower, as her "seahorse." (Not shown)

It being the morning of November 1st, we are currently in discussion of whether candy is a suitable breakfast food.

Liz as Ariel with wings on her birthday.