Pilot fraud cases have parallels Ex-con man questions airport security after Bethesda man's arrest

October 25, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

If Daniel Shykind impersonated an airline pilot to take free flights and provide cover for a scheme, he needed only to go to the public library for how-to tips.

Montgomery County prosecutors say portions of their fraud and theft case against Shykind resemble the exploits of convicted con man Frank Abagnale Jr., who wrote a 1980 best seller, "Catch Me If You Can."

In fact, authorities had expected to find a copy during a search of Shykind's apartment, and have checked the book out of the local library as they prepare for trial in March.

Shykind, 31, of Bethesda is accused of bilking 14 airline employees and friends out of $30,700 over a three-year period. He is to appear in a Rockville courtroom tomorrow for a mental competency hearing.

UPDATE: The charges and court records were ultimately expunged.

Abagnale, now a consultant on white-collar crime for law enforcement agencies and corporations, said in an interview last week it doesn't surprise him that his techniques seem to still be successful.

"People believe airport security is tight," he said, "but anyone with half a brain who wanted to get on a plane could do it."

A fatal 1987 commuter plane crash prompted the Air Line Pilots Association to study security problems. A disgruntled former employee of USAir Inc. used his identification card to avoid the metal detectors and board a Pacific Southwest Airlines commuter flight. He shot both pilots, causing the plane to crash outside San Francisco, killing all 41 aboard.

The 45,000-member association has urged the Federal Aviation Administration and airports to adopt universal identification and access systems.

"We need one standard format for ID badges with machine-readable coding," said ALPA spokesman John Mazor. "Then with seven keystrokes in the corporate offices, an employee is invalid in a matter of seconds."

'No stopping someone'

About 30 years ago, Abagnale posed as a Pan Am pilot under two aliases for five years to get free flights and hotel rooms and to cover a trail of bogus checks. He outlined in his book how to get a uniform, make an airline employee identification badge and FAA license, and "deadhead," or get a free flight.

"Nothing's really changed," said Abagnale. "People say, 'You'd never get away with it today.' I tell them I could get a uniform, go down to the operations office and get a [deadhead] slip and get on the plane."

Pilots and aviation experts say it is rare that someone slips through security and gains access to the cockpit, as it is believed Shykind did.

"But doesn't it confirm what we've always known?" asks Arthur Wolk, a Philadelphia lawyer, jet pilot and aviation crash investigator. "There's no stopping someone when they have the interest and savvy to do something that's risky."

Like Abagnale, Shykind was well-versed in commercial aviation and looked the part of a commercial pilot, the alleged victims told prosecutors.

And like Abagnale, he is accused of using flight attendants as resources and cover -- in Shykind's case, his wife, Heidi Shykind, a former flight attendant for American Airlines, and her best friend, one of his accusers.

Heidi Shykind also has been charged with theft and is awaiting trial.

Court documents say Shykind had two United Airlines uniforms, personalized United checks and engraved United ID tags in his apartment when he was arrested in December.

Abagnale and uniform suppliers say it's not hard to look the part of a commercial airline captain.

"A pilot's uniform? I could get you a pilot's uniform," said Jane Frenkil of Washington Uniform Co. "You come in and say, 'I want four gold stripes, scrambled eggs on the cap, epaulets.'

"I could get pilot's wings, too, a sample from a supplier. I wouldn't think twice about it," she said.

Preston Grier of Howard Uniform Co. in Baltimore said it might be easier. "You don't even have to buy it. You could make it or get it at a flea market from a retired pilot," Grier said.

As for employee identification, Abagnale said his crude technique of putting model airplane decals on a generic ID card has been made obsolete by personal computers, color scanners and laser printers.

Obtaining IDs

Jeff Jacobson, who heads Identicom Technologies Inc., a Gaithersburg company that produces federal employee ID cards, said a fake doesn't have to be very good.

"It's very easy if you have a uniform, too. The ID doesn't have to be perfect," said Jacobson. "It becomes part of a package.

"It's easy to make and distribute an ID. But a company has to check them, that's the whole integrity of the program," Jacobson said.

Abagnale said Shykind apparently employed a safeguard he used: Avoid the airline you purport to fly for.

"No. 1, no one is going to know [the ID] exactly. No. 2, they're not going to ask you if you know anybody. No. 3, you don't know their procedures so they're not going to ask you to fly the plane," he said.

Shykind's accusers included two American Airlines pilots, one American Eagle pilot and the American flight attendant.

Court documents say Shykind told investors he was running a currency-exchange business at the Guatemala City National Airport, and he needed start-up money from them.

Shykind's accusers wrote checks for $700 to $5,000, and all but one never saw a return, court documents say.

Abagnale said he can guess what the participants might have been thinking: "People saw the uniform and thought, 'He's making six figures, why would he try to cheat me out of $5,000?' " he said.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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