Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Frank Abignale, the man whose teenage years were chronicled in the book and subsequent Steven Speilberg movie, Catch Me If You Can. Mr. Abignale is considered by many to be among the most creative financial crime, forgery, and bank fraud expert to have lived. And he accomplished most of his crimes before the age of 21. For more than 30 years, he has worked for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) helping them to catch those commiting financial and e-commerce crimes. He also has developed an array of technologies that make it more difficult for forgers to create counterfeit documents.
I asked him about the use of contactless technology and its ability to increase the security of documents such as passports and payment cards. No doubt he has been asked a similar question about a “new technology” by hundreds of others over the years. You could likely substitute many things in place of “contactless” in my question (e.g. plastic cards, magnetic stripes, holograms, smart cards, biometrics).
Thus he preferred to focus on the general rather than the specific. He pointed out that technology (such as contactless ID) changes and makes systems more secure but at the same time it increases the tools available for fraud. “What I did thirty years ago is even easier today. In the past, you needed a million dollar Heidelberg press to counterfeit checks. Today it can be done with a laptop, a scanner, and a color printer.” He noted that he had to create account numbers, names, and the company representatives’ signatures. “Today a thief could simply call the AR (Accounts Receivable) department of any company, claim to be a vendor paying an invoice, and request bank routing numbers. Next call–to the communication department requesting a copy of the annual report. On page three you find the names and signatures of the CEO, CFO and other corporate officers—black ink on white glossy paper, basically camera-ready art.”
His point, it seems, was that we add a new technology that promised security improvements but concurrently that very technology as well as a host of others are being used to perpetrate new means of fraud. It is almost a balancing act. We cannot give up on methods and technologies to improve security or the good guys will fall further behind. But we must be realistic and recognize that our efforts are being coopted almost immediately.
Mr. Abignale points to the example of identity theft. “Identity theft is perhaps the easiest crime to commit. We have only scratched the surface of it. On the Internet today, you can readily obtain 22 important characteristics about an individual—social security number, address, neighbors, employer, salary, bank account information … To assume someone’s identity is an extremely easy process.” He adds, “If your identity has not been stolen, it is simply because someone has not yet targeted you.”
This is another example of a technology that makes information available to better protect and serve individuals being used in another manner for fraud. This is the ying and yang of technology.
This is certainly true for contactless and RFID. While it does increase the security of the documents utilizing it, there are already many unsrupulous entities working to compromise the technology and use it fraudulently. That does not mean our efforts are wasted. Rather it means we must continually strive to improve security but look regularly over our shoulders.
Chris Corum, Editor, [email protected]