Frank Abagnale, the con man portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 hit movie, “Catch Me If You Can,” has a message for accountants and their clients about the dangers of using free public Wi-Fi hotspots: Don’t get conned.

During his career as a teenage fraudster during the 1960s, Abagnale successfully impersonated a doctor, a prosecutor and a Pan-Am co-pilot, while also forging checks, before he was caught by a dogged FBI agent. He now specializes in advising companies and business people on protecting themselves from fraudsters and other criminals. Abagnale has also worked with Intuit on counseling users of QuickBooks on how to safeguard their security, and more recently he has teamed up with AARP on a public awareness campaign for consumers, particularly senior citizens.

“I have spent the last four decades working with banks, corporations and financial institutions,” he told Accounting Today. “I worked as a consultant for Intuit for many years protecting CPAs and their clients, but the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to reach the actual consumer, the person who is most likely to be harmed by some of these scams through the AARP Fraud Watch Network. Each time we pick something that we know is the most common thing going on to alert people on how to protect themselves from that. Right now we’re concerned about Wi-Fi and public domains.”

AARP conducted a survey and found that about 70 percent of the people polled use public Wi-Fi networks to do things like checking Facebook and their emails, while about 33 percent of the respondents admitted they perform banking transactions, order items with their credit cards, and answer sensitive emails. However, they could be exposing themselves to hackers and identity thieves that way since the wireless networks may be unsecured or masquerading as legitimate ones.

“We just want to remind people that when you’re on a public Wi-Fi it is not private,” said Abagnale. “If you’re in a coffee shop or an airport, you do not want to do banking transactions, give out banking information, or purchase things with a credit card. It’s always wise to just go to your settings and shut off the auto-connect to your Wi-Fi so that you don’t forget about it and you’re in a public domain and someone gets into your laptop or your device and gets that information.”

AARP has created a website, aarp.org/watchyourwifi, which provides this and other tips. “We also have some video there to show you how people actually steal information in a public Wi-Fi situation like that,” Abagnale noted.

He is encouraging accountants to spread the word to their clients about the security vulnerabilities that could expose their personal or business information to criminals.

“A CPA is an advisor to their customer, so it’s important for the CPA to have that information to be able to pass it on to their customers about protecting themselves from embezzlement, check forgery, etc.,” said Abagnale. “I work with Intuit to help educate their four and a half million users of QuickBooks, as well as their CPAs. These are basically simple tips about protecting your business from embezzlement, and using the right check stock to make it more difficult for someone altering and forging a bad check.”

By working with AARP now, Abagnale wants to spread the word to the average consumer. “This has given me a unique opportunity to get out of the corporate world for a while and really take care of the people who need that information,” he said. “That’s the everyday walk of life men, women and children who fall victim to these crimes every day and have nowhere to go for resources to get that information.”

Firewalls, antivirus programs and other forms of security software can help to some extent, but technology users should also be aware that cybercriminals have ways to get around those defenses.

“It helps a little bit, but it will not help you completely,” said Abagnale. “Even though I may have those things on my laptop or on my iPhone, they’re not going to protect me from someone stealing information from me on a public Wi-Fi network or someone setting up a fake network and me signing onto that fake network, or automatically being connected to that fake network because I haven’t shut off my auto-connect to Wi-Fi. Technology is great, but you have to go beyond the technology and just be a little smarter and a little wiser. That’s why we find it very useful to simply provide people these educational tips.”

Besides the free advice on the AARP site, he also has his own site, Abagnale.com, where he is offering free information that accountants can give to their clients.

“A CPA can go there and under Publications I write many things for CPAs to pass on to their clients,” said Abagnale. “They can find a 20-page booklet there about protecting them from embezzlement, check forgery, all kinds of things. It’s free. They can download it, print it out, reprint it, and send it out to their customers. There’s no advertising in it, so there’s a lot of information there. I have found that education is the most powerful tool for fighting crime. AARP is a great resource for me to get to everybody, but CPAs can go to my website and get that information that they can pass on to their clients as well.”

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