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21 Mar, 2013 05:38

Facebook users risk identity theft

Facebook users risk identity theft

The ‘world’s greatest con man-turned security consultant,’ Frank Abagnale, has issued a serious warning about the dangers of Facebook: users put themselves at risk of identity theft by filling out online profiles.

Abagnale knows from experience how easy it is to steal a person’s identity and says it can be done with little more than a name, date of birth, and birthplace. Abagnale, who is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” is one of the most famous impostors and claimed at least eight identities in his youth.

"If you tell me your date of birth and where you're born [on Facebook], I'm 98 percent [of the way] to stealing your identity," he said at an Advertising Week Europe conference on Wednesday. "Never state your date of birth and where you were born [on personal profiles], otherwise you are saying 'come and steal my identity.'"

Abagnale has spent the past 37 years working as a security expert for US law enforcement agencies. He was captured for his crimes in 1969, but only served five years in prison before the US government offered him a deal: he would be released from prison if he agreed to help the feds investigate crimes committed by other fraudsters and scam artists. 

With decades of work for the FBI, Abagnale has become acutely aware of the dangers posed by social media sites like Facebook. Aside from the information that users upload, having a Facebook can also make users susceptible to tracking – particularly if a user connects his or her devices to their profile. One virus, for example, allows hackers to track a Facebook user’s physical location, even if their cell phone is not currently logged on to the website.

Another program that is owned by Google has the ability to recognize faces and match them with profiles on social networking sites, such as Facebook. This can all be done “in just seven seconds,” Abagnale said. If someone were to snap an image on an iPhone of a passerby and upload that photo to an app, like PittPatt, that app could then be used to determine who that person is.

But even though Facebook and Google offer ways for people to distribute their personal information, Abagnale believes users hold the responsibility of their own Internet safety. He urges users to be careful about what they fill out and to make smart decisions – because ultimately, people can control what they put on the web.

"Your privacy is the only thing you have left," he said. "Don't blame all the other companies – Google, Facebook – you control it. You have to keep control of your own information."

Although his three sons have Facebook accounts, Abagnale has taught his children how to use the site without putting themselves at risk of identity theft, tracking or other sorts of unwanted privacy violations.

And with the advancement in technology, the former conman says criminals are capable of much more than they were when he was a child.

“What I did was almost 50 years ago and it’s about 4,000 times easier today to con people than when I did it,” he told Wired. “To forge a check 50 years ago, you needed a Heidelberg printed press, you had to be a skilled printer, know how to do color separations, negatives, type-setting… those presses were 90 feet long and 18 feet high… Today, you open a laptop.”

And with information easy to come by, especially when Facebook users post their personal information on their profile, fraudsters have everything they need in the confines of their home and a laptop.

“Technology breeds crime,” Abagnale said. Conmen no longer have to be well-dressed, charming and well-spoken; conmen just need an Internet connection.