Online crime is on the rise. Can the good guys with computers stop the bad guys with computers?
In the late 1960s, con man Frank Abagnale led the FBI and U.S. authorities on quite a merry chase. From impersonating a doctor to pretending to be an airline pilot, Abagnale enjoyed the jet set for years. He fleeced hotels, banks and businesses for millions and had a grand time doing it.
After he was finally caught by the FBI and sentenced for his crimes, Abagnale turned witness for the prosecution- helping the FBI catch others trying his old line of work. All these many years later, Abagnale still works in security consulting, teaching CEOS, law enforcement agents and bank managers how to spot and avoid fraud.
Abagnale- immortalized in the movie, Catch Me if You Can, and played by no less than Leonardo DiCaprio- gets one question over and over from his clients, during interviews, all the time:
“Could you still get away with all that today?”
Abagnale must enjoy the answer he gives; it is job security, after all.
“Not only could I get away with it,” Abagnale tells anyone who asks; “It would be about 4000x easier today.”
He’s right: In 2022, forged financial instruments, faked letterhead, and phony offers can be made to look more real than anything young Frank Abagnale managed to literally cut and paste together in 1967.
Thieves these days can counterfeit a fake paycheck so realistic, even an expert in fraudulent instruments might be fooled. QR code phishing schemes are getting more and more sophisticated by the minute.
It’s diabolical; it’s criminal; and it’s definitely an enterprise, an industry.
And it’s growing.
Because while the methods for creating and catching forgeries, counterfeits and scams have improved substantially with technology, not everything has changed.
Technology is better, but according to Frank Abagnale, PT Barnum, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, a dozen other authorities, conventional wisdom and our own eyes and ears, people are just as gullible as ever.
We are perhaps even easier to fool than ever, according to fraud experts like Frank Abagnale. The good guys with computers have authentication and security tricks, advanced technology and specialized algorithms, holographs and unique digital signature detection; the bad guys with computers have all new and better tricks, too.
With specialized equipment, powerful processors, and an embarrassment of data riches available in the Information Age, fraudsters and organized online crime syndicates can create fraudulent financial traps so perfect, it’s truly hard to tell a legitimate credit card offer from a prepaid debit card which looks almost, but not quite, like a Mastercard.
There is a never-ending, ever-evolving list of security protocols and standards systems managers use to keep systems, data and money safe from would-be thieves and exploiters. And still, the good guys with computers are staying one barest millimeter ahead of the bad guys with computers; if that.
People, being just as vulnerable as ever, are more easily taken in by new and improved forged documents, fake currency, fake credit cards- even fake credit card machines or fake ATMS that don’t dispense money; only collect the credit card data of the unwary. Unsuspecting employees take painstakingly secured laptops into unsecured areas, leaving data thieves a wide-open door with a welcome sign over it.
Potential fraudsters can also reach a much wider audience for their schemes than ever before in history. For confidence tricksters, data collectors, bank account drainers and other criminals, their life of crime is nothing so much as one big numbers game.
Fraud is perpetrated against U.S. consumers and companies by individuals and organized crime syndicates around the world. Some nations have become well known for a new type of export in recent years; financial fraud, phishing scams, and confidence schemes.
Rings of thieves email their ludicrous tale about a wealthy deposed prince desperate for help- who only needs the temporary use of a U.S. bank account to reach his majority- to millions upon millions of email addresses.
To most of us, the story seems so patently absurd, it’s amazing anyone could fall for it. What most people don’t understand, however, is that these schemes are intentionally ludicrous.
By making them so, criminals are qualifying out anyone who might fall for a more believable scheme- at first- only to balk when it’s time for that all-important, and irretrievable, wire transfer.
That scenario would be a major waste of employee time for this particular criminal enterprise. It takes a lot of persuading to convince someone to send a total stranger money; it’s very time-intensive.
Knowing that, fraud perpetrators make the story unbelievable on purpose, so that only someone truly credulous, naive, desperate, impaired or otherwise would respond, that person being judged more likely to go all the way through with compromising their personal and banking information.
It works, too; millions fall victim to confidence schemes, are the victims of identity theft, or find their financial resources, credit ratings, assets drained away every year.
Some U.S. financial, banking and credit card companies haven’t made things easier for consumers faced with this new gauntlet and the strong possibility they will eventually fall victim to scammers, hackers and leakers.
Those unlucky enough to find themselves grist in the online financial fraud mill, trying to get help from customer service, are routinely- even after paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year in annual fees- bounced around through any number of non-U.S. based call and data centers.
Average credit card and banking customers are not equipped to claw back resources from finely-tuned fraud machines fleecing the unwary for billions.
American credit card and banking companies need new departments dedicated exclusively to helping clients and customers stay one step ahead of today’s digital highwaymen. With a top staff trained by security and law enforcement agencies advocating on their behalf, U.S. consumers might stand a chance.
Barring that, a U.S. government department outfitted to combat this newest threat to better business and consumer protection wouldn’t go amiss, either. Whatever government agencies are currently doing to combat this scourge is helping keep the flood at bay, but only barely. And not for everyone.
The levees are breaking; U.S. consumers are increasingly sitting ducks and the world’s most devious fraudsters are getting more advanced, and more desperate, by the day.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)