Q&A: Fraudster Frank Abagnale offers IT security advice

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

At Computerworld's Storage Networking World conference in the US, 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 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 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?

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.

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.

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

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, harder to detect.

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Computerworld Staff

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