The Big Interview: Frank Abagnale, respected fraud consultant

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Long gone are the days where Frank Abagnale, former con artist, walked into a bank impersonating a Pan-Am pilot trying to cash in bad cheques. The man whose life story was the inspiration behind the Hollywood movie Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, is now a changed man.

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Abagnale no longer makes his living impersonating people for his own gain, but instead uses his knowledge about fraudulent behaviour to help others. For more than 40 years he has been advising the FBI as well as helping companies such as Experian, LexisNexis and Intuit in their fraud prevention programmes.

“When I was a kid, everything I did – none of it was premeditated,” Abagnale tells Business Reporter over the phone from Washington, DC. “I ran away from home and started writing some cheques. I would go into a bank and would be  trying to convince the teller to cash a cheque. The teller would say, sir, you do not have a bank account here, we cannot cash a cheque for you.

“Then one day I’m walking down the street and I see this airline crew coming out of a hotel. I think to myself, if I could get this uniform and walk into a bank as an airline pilot and say I am here on a layover, I ran a little low on money, could I cash a cheque, it would give me a lot more power in getting a cheque cashed.

“I never thought about getting on airplanes, riding around for free and going to hotels – just, how could I get this uniform to cash cheques?  So then there was the whole phone call to Pan-Am, getting them to give me the information on where to get the uniform.

“But, when I got the uniform, there were no wings and no hat emblem, so that was the next thing to overcome – that and the ID card. I made some phone calls and found out you had to go out to Hangar 14 at JFK airport, to what they call the Stores Department.

“I went out there and put a raincoat over my shoulder and put my hat under my armpit and walked by the security guard. All they saw was the uniform from that angle. When I got into the Stores Department, I told them I lost my wings and hat emblem and got a new pair, and that’s how I got it.”


The CV: Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale has worked with the FBI for more than four decades and more than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies use his fraud prevention programmes.

  • He lectures extensively in the field offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and at the FBI Academy, and is a faculty member at the National Advocacy Center (NAC), operated by the Department of Justice.
  • Every year he also conducts more than 100 domestic and international seminars for his clients, to educate attendees on how to reduce their exposure to fraud, forgery and embezzlement.
  • His book Catch Me If You Can was made into a movie of the same name, as well as a Broadway musical which opened in April 2011 and won a Tony award. Other books he has written include Stealing Your Life, The Art Of The Steal, and The Real U Guide To Identity Theft.

By the time he was 21, Abagnale had cashed $2.5million worth of bad cheques, flown around the world by impersonating a Pan-Am pilot, and had even worked in a hospital for a short period of time after masquerading as a doctor.

In 1969 Abagnale was arrested by the French police, and served time in the French, Swedish and US prison systems. He was given 12 years, but was released after five on the condition that he would help the US government, without being paid, by teaching and assisting federal law enforcement agencies.

The former con artist is now working on the right side of the law. Companies use his knowledge of how a fraudster might think to understand how to build technologies to stop them getting inside their systems.

“The criminal mind and the way the criminal thinks have pretty much stayed the same,” Abagnale says. “The truth is the majority of people in the world are honest. They do not have a deceptive mind. This is why they fall victim to a lot of things. They are extremely well educated business people.

“I have that mind when I look at things – right away, I look at things from out of the box. I try to figure out what is really behind this question or this email or this letter or this phone call. That ability has come from my past.”

He has spent 10 years developing a technology called the 41st Parameter with former American Express Worldwide fraud director Ori Eisen, which enables banks and companies to determine who they are doing business with on the other end of the computer.

Abagnale’s passion is now helping to educate people and companies about fraud. He says: “If you explain to people what is going on, it opens their eyes. This is why I write books, this is why I go out and lecture. The best thing I can do is simply educate people.”

According to Abagnale, as long as you have information on someone stored somewhere, someone is going to find it. He believes that over the next five to 10 years, we are going to see the whole internet become much more dangerous.

He says: “Right now, the threat is financial harm, but over the next years what we are going to see is the ability to shut off someone’s pacemaker from thousands of miles away. We can actually do that now, but you have to be within 35 feet of the victim, and in about five years you will be able to do that from much further.

“We can already now control cars remotely. If we are chasing after a car and we get close enough to it, we can shut the motor off. We can kill the power steering. We can kill the brakes. We can lock the door, so the criminal cannot get out. Within the next five to 10 years you will see criminals using that, if they want to kill someone going down the M4.

“Then, of course, there is terrorism. It will be used to attack electrical grids and banking facilities and things like that. We’re going to see the internet become a lot more dangerous.

“Someone asked me the other day, how do we 100 per cent secure our company from being hit by a hacker? My answer was, there is only one way to be able to do that 100 per cent, and that would be to get offline, to go back to the old way and take all the information offline.

“The internet is not 100 per cent secure, and it is amazing that not only do we use this unsecure environment to move money all over the world, but that we also use it for our defence.

“Fraud really never changes, just the means by which it is perpetrated. All of the things that go on today have gone on for years and years. The internet has just made it accessible to millions of people to be victimised all over the world.

“As I said to this individual, if they are hacking into aircraft carriers, bombers going across the ocean, navy destroyers and the Pentagon, you can easily imagine the damage they would do to some small business or company sitting somewhere. Unfortunately if you make it easy for someone to steal from you the chances are someone will, so don’t make it easy. You have to be a little smarter today than you did 30 years ago.”

Businesses and individuals certainly need to be more aware how to protect themselves against fraud these days, and Abagnale believes prevention is the only viable course of action against fraud. A classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper, Abagnale changed his life and is now a respected figure in the fraud industry, helping the FBI and businesses fight this crime. And by education and thinking outside the box, businesses and individuals can learn to protect themselves against fraud.

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