There's an old joke that goes something like this: If you owned a business and an elderly customer inadvertently paid you with a $100 bill instead of a $10 one, the ethical dilemma you're faced with is do you or do you not tell your partner?

Last week in this space I wrote about ethics -- or, more correctly, the stunning absence of ethics-related courses in the nation's high school and college curricula and how two professors from Kansas State University were trying to rectify that disturbing situation.

Recently, I learned a bit more about ethics in this country from a reformed criminal who knows a thing or two about that subject.

Frank Abagnale Jr. is a convicted forger who served prison terms both here and abroad for check fraud and now works as a security consultant to 50 of the country's top banks and many Fortune 500 companies.

His former life was so compelling that his autobiography, "Catch Me If You Can," was made into a feature film two years ago.

He served as keynote speaker at an anti-fraud conference in New York, where over 300 CPAs and attorneys sardined themselves into a conference room to hear Abagnale tell them what many of them already knew.

"We live in an unethical society," Abagnale declared. "If you make it easy for people to steal from you, they will."

Want proof?

What do these statistics say about a national decline in ethics?

* In 1964 there were 86,000 people in the nation's prisons. Today, that figure is 2.1 million.

* In 2004, bank robberies on a national level caused $64 million in losses. Last year, American Express alone recorded $2.5 billion in fraudulent credit card losses.

* Each year, white collar crime accounts for $660 billion in losses, roughly double the annual budget for the U.S. military.

* Financial reporting fraud hit $258 billion last year, compared to $33 billion in medical insurance fraud.

* Executives are six times more likely to commit fraud than managers and 14 times more likely than rank-and-file employees.

Abagnale said the advent of technology has only made it "4,000 times easier to do today what I did 40 years ago."

Access to top-of-the-line laptops, scanners and facilities such as Kinko's has resulted in arrests of budding forgers under the ripe old age of 12.

Despite those incredible statistics, it's alarming how little has changed in terms of company policies and security measures since Abagnale was reveling in his fraud-driven heyday of the 1960s -- let alone in terms of ethics education.

Every company, not just CPA firms, should have a code of ethics, and here's hoping that academia eventually catches on to the fact that ethics education probably should be a requirement and not an elective.

Because if you're at all wavering about the answer to the scenario that opened this column, then we're in worse shape than even Frank Abagnale imagined.

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