'Catch Me If You Can' con artist warns about scams targeting seniors

Frank Abagnale says more education — not regulation — is needed to protect elderly; '4,000 times easier'

Nov 16, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

By Liz Skinner

The con artist whose impersonations included a commercial airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer — and whose life was the subject of the Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can” – said the identity-stealing frauds he committed in his youth would be even easier today. He pressed lawmakers to arm senior citizens with the knowledge to protect themselves from the type of scams he used to pull.

“What I did 40 years ago as a teenager is 4,000 times easier to do today due to technology,” Frank Abagnale told a Senate panel on aging Thursday.

At least $2.9 billion of senior citizens' funds were stolen or used improperly by financial services providers, home health aides, family members and others in 2010, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Board. The hearing was aimed at preventing such frauds and manipulations that target the nation's elderly.

Education — not government regulation — is the best approach to take to protect seniors, said Mr. Abagnale, who has spent the last 36 years teaching agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation how to detect and combat fraud. He advocated public service announcements to point out common scams and explain how to avoid becoming a victim.

A Government Accountability Office report, released at the hearing, said banks are in an ideal position to identify and report elder financial abuse. The report suggests that the government require financial institutions to do more against the exploitation of seniors, including providing the evidence needed to support investigation of these cases.

For example, a bank teller who sees an older customer regularly may notice if he or she comes in with someone and is pressured to withdraw money, or if their customer begins wiring large sums internationally.

For its part, the CFPB is scheduled to release a report in early 2013 on how a financial adviser's designation should be provided to older clients, said Hubert “Skip” Humphrey, assistant director of the Office for Older Americans at the agency.

Detecting and preventing elder financial exploitation is his office's top mission, he said, especially as the nation approaches 50 million people 62 and over, or about 20% of the population.

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