Talk about using your super powers for good. Before he was even old enough to vote, Frank Abagnale became one of the most notorious con men in history. From the age of 16-21, he posed as a pediatrician, lawyer, sociology teacher, film director and even an airline pilot to hitch rides all over the world. He estimates he flew a million miles to more than 26 countries, all in his impressive Pan Am uniform he got by calling the company’s headquarters and telling them he had lost his while traveling.
He also defrauded a lot of banks. After stealing more than $300,000, he was caught and served time in France, Sweden and the United States. After being granted parole at the age of 26, he was hired by the FBI and is now a respected authority on forgery, embezzlement and document fraud.
After appearing on Johnny Carson’s show nine times, Frank was urged by him to write a book. “Catch Me If You Can” is the fascinating story of his life, which Steven Spielberg made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 2002.
Frank also started his own company, Abagnale & Associates, to educate others on fraud prevention. Looks like he’ll never run out of work. Fraud is still a huge problem in the U.S., costing more than $900 billion a year.
According to the most recent Payment Fraud and Control Survey, 87 percent of cash managers, analysts and directors claim to have incurred instances of check fraud in 2012.
Although claims have been made for years that the U.S. would soon be a checkless society, around 75 percent of payments from one company to another are still made by check. Abagnale believes the U.S. is still 20-30 years away from being completely paperless. And it’s never been easier to create a counterfeit check.
“What I did 40 years ago is 4,000 times easier to do today than when I did it,” he said in an interview on CNN, talking about his counterfeiting. Back then he needed an entire room to set up a large press to create fake checks, a tedious process. Today all you need is a stolen check for the account number, a laptop and a scanner.
Frank shares tips on how to prevent all types of fraud. Here are a few of his tips for businesses:
• Tear out the hard drive of any printer or copier you discard. They store images of everything that is copied on them, some of which may be confidential information. Be sure to destroy any hard drives before getting rid of them.
• Use a black uni-ball 207 pen when you sign documents, especially checks. The ink in these pens forms a bond to the paper that prevents the signature from being stripped. It is the only pen whose ink cannot be altered by chemicals or solvents.
• CFOs and chief auditors need to play an active role into the purchasing of the company’s checks. Purchasing agents often opt for the cheapest checks. Companies need to invest in checks that contain the latest security features. These include Thermochromatic inks that react to temperature changes and cannot be replicated and prismatic backgrounds with multiple colors that are difficult to reproduce.
For more fraud prevention tips from Frank, buy his book “The Art of the Steal: How to Protect Yourself from Fraud, America’s #1 Crime.” (There are also plenty of tips in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes.”)
Frank has made it his life’s mission to prevent people being stolen from. “If you make it easy for someone to steal from you, someone will,” he says. “Don’t make it easy.”
As the Turnaround Authority, I’ve worked with many companies that made it way too easy for employees to steal from them. One of my favorite stories is about a company in Dallas that had invested in surveillance equipment to keep a watch on inventory that might walk out the door. The problem was that the surveillance room was kept unlocked.
This was back in the days of cassette tapes, so after somebody stole some inventory, he or she simply went to the surveillance room and either erased or replaced the tape. One thoughtful fellow merely placed the tape player on pause, then restarted it when he was done.
While some thieves have to be incredibly creative, like Frank, to steal, others merely jump on an available opportunity. Don’t give them one.