Admit it, you've been hacked.

The crowd gathered at the Lyric in the Old Yellowstone District heard the blunt message from reformed fraudster and security expert Frank Abagnale on Thursday.

"Everyone in this room has had their identity stolen," Abagnale said, adding a 2012 Carnegie Mellon study found 10 percent of 40,000 children surveyed have had their identity stolen.

Abagnale, 70, knows more than most about stealing, he said before the presentation sponsored by AARP.

Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

He grew up north of New York City; ran away from home at 16 when a judge told him his parents were divorcing; quickly learned how to forge financial instruments; used his 6-foot-tall frame, good looks and charm to deceive people by dressing up as a Pan Am pilot and flying about a million miles around the world; and impersonating a doctor and a lawyer. (See Steven Spielberg's 2002 "Catch Me If You Can" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks for a mostly true account.)

He got caught for his fraudulent ways, first in France where he was jailed for six months in a small, unlit cell with no toilet or bed; then sent to Sweden; and then extradited to the United States where he served five years in prison for fraud. The FBI gave him the opportunity to spend more time in prison or work for free to teach it how to find and fight the scams he ran so well.

For the past 42 years, including the past four years with AARP, he's worked for the FBI. Among his contributions to everyday life are the holograms you see on your credit cards and checks.

Abagnale still feels guilty about the people he hurt, and remains a convicted felon having turned down pardons from three presidents, he said.

Through it all, he praises his wife and their three sons for his life and accomplishments. He never saw his father again because he died while he was in the French jail cell. The most important lesson he wanted to impart was to the men in the crowd, urging them to be the best husbands and dads possible.


So to do his part to help families and people remain whole, he launched into the identity theft and scams that can tear them apart, followed by suggestions for them to protect themselves.

Abagnale ticked off some of the institutions and companies that have been hacked with your data: the Internal Revenue Service, Yahoo, Equifax, Heartland Payment Systems, Linked In and Target.

That data includes names, physical addresses, email addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, passwords, log on names, credit ratings, and anything else that identifies you as you, he said. That's in addition to what's already available about you on social media.

Those who steal data usually don't use it immediately, but store it for future use or to sell to the highest bidder on the Dark Web -- the massive part of the internet not accessible by Google and other common search engines, Abagnale said.

While it seems counterintuitive, those who steal and sell data would much prefer having the name, date of birth and Social Security number of a child than a wealthy, well-established businessperson, he said. With a child's data, an identity thief can become, in cyberspace, that person for decades.

Technology, of course, has exponentially accelerated the damage, Abagnale said.

Twenty years ago, the "Nigerian scam" was all the rage with people getting letters telling them how the Nigerian government or some Nigerian big shot had a huge amount of cash for you if you send them some money to unravel red tape and receive you money.

Those who ran the scam might have sent 30,000 letters (with counterfeit stamps) with the hope of just hearing from 0.01 percent of the recipients.

Those scammers now can send 30 million emails, and that 0.01 percent target reaps that much more loot, Abagnale said.

Technology also offers a way to get a huge amount of data from of all things, digital copiers, he said. When old digital copiers are sent back to the factory for refurbishing, they still have their hard drives that recorded everything copied on them.

So beyond watching for retreads of Nigerian scams, people calling to tell you that you missed jury duty so you need to fork over cash to avoid arrest, and whatever is loaded on the copier at your workplace, Abagnale offered a few suggestions to protect yourself:

  • Destroy everything you get in the mail with a micro-cut shredder.
  • Don't use a debit card, because your liability is not protected like it is with a credit card.
  • Freeze your credit except when you need to get a loan or mortgage.
  • Use only a bank-issued ATM card.
  • Monitor your credit reports frequently.
  • Provide your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary.
  • Retrieve mail from your mailbox as soon as possible.
  • Be more selective with whom you share your personal information.
  • Be on the lookout for skimmers or bugged keypads at Automatic Teller Machines.
  • Password protection -- keep passwords strong and change them on a regular basis.
  • Computer security -- keep your firewall, antivirus and spyware protection current.

For more information, visit AARP's Fraud Watch Network.

More From AM 1400 The Cowboy