Former fraudster offers advice amid rise in pandemic scams

Click to play video: 'Former con artist explains how to avoid pandemic scams'
Former con artist explains how to avoid pandemic scams
WATCH ABOVE: The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for millions of people around the world. But it’s been an especially lucrative time for financial scammers, according to a security consultant who served prison time for writing millions of dollars in forged cheques. Global News reporter Sean O’Shea caught up with Frank Abagnale, 25 years after they first met, to get advice on how to avoid being duped. – Aug 26, 2020

A global pandemic has caused death, serious illness, financial chaos and personal upheaval for people around the world.

It’s also presented a great opportunity for cyber-criminals targeting financial fraud victims, including Canadians.

“The scam artists are playing on the headlines,” said Frank W. Abagnale, an American security consultant, whose exploits 50 years ago as a conman were featured in the Hollywood film Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Abagnale said cyber scams have spiked significantly in the more than five months since the COVID-19 health crisis was declared.

“We’ve seen an increase of 350 percent,” Abagnale told Global News.

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“There is no compassion, there is no emotion, they will steal every dime they can from you,” Abagnale said in an interview from his home in South Carolina.

Abagnale, now 72, was a prolific con-artist before becoming a security consultant. Between the ages of 16 and 21, he posed as an airline pilot and a doctor, and he wrote $2.5 million in forged cheques.

He was caught by the FBI. He served six months in a French prison, six months in a Swedish prison, and four years in a U.S. prison.

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Now, Abagnale is appearing in new educational videos called “Catch the Scam” commissioned by HomeEquity Bank in Toronto. The four-part online series features Abagnale teaching Canadians how to identify and protect themselves against being scammed.

HomeEquity Bank said Canadians have been feeling vulnerable to fraud since March.

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In polling conducted by Ipsos, the bank said 52 per cent of Canadians over age 55 claimed they have been the target of a scam.

Among those polled, 36 per cent of those over 55 have fallen victim to a scam, according to the Ipsos results.

More than two-thirds — 69 percent — of Canadians surveyed said they’d be financially harmed if they let their guard down.

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But Abagnale offers some simple strategies to reduce the risks.

First, if he receives a robocall he’s quick to terminate it immediately, within one second, if possible.

“If I stay on the phone and listen to the pitch, I’m going to get more robocalls,” he said.

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He says there are two red flags to be aware of in most financial scams, whether it’s a romance scam, lottery scam, or some other ruse.

“At some point, someone is going to ask you for money, and it has to be paid right now, on the phone,” Abagnale said.

The other red flag is that the scammer will ask for personal information, such as your home address and bank account number.

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Abagnale says statistics show that millennials more frequently fall victim to financial scams, but seniors lose more money when they’re hit.

Knowing the tactics of scammers, Abagnale says he never spends his own money to purchase anything.

“I do not own a debit card. I never have. I only use a credit card. Every day of my life, I spend the credit card company’s money,” he said, explaining that if his account is ever defrauded, he doesn’t have to argue with his bank to get his money back.

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“I never spend one dime of my money. It sits in a money market account. No one knows where it is,” he said.

Five decades after his own escapades, Abagnale acknowledges no one is completely immune to being defrauded.

“Anyone can get scammed, including me.”

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