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An Interview With

Frank Abagnale, Jr.

 April 24, 2005

 

 

 



Introduction:

In 2002 world-renowned director and producer Steven Spielberg released the movie Catch Me If You Can. I was very excited about Catch Me If You Can because of the star-studded cast and the true story about which the film was based. The cast included Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, and Jennifer Garner. The movie was based on a true story that took place between 1964 and 1974.  It was about a teenager named Frank Abagnale Jr., who between the ages of 16 to 21 impersonated a pilot, a teacher, a doctor, and a lawyer. He also forged millions of dollars worth of checks in many countries. Eventually, like most criminals, he was arrested.  He spent five years in prison.  In 1974, after five years of his sentence, the F.B.I. took Abagnale out on parole and allowed him work in the check forgery department.  But after his parole he didn’t stop working for the F.B.I.  To this day, 31 years later, he continues to work without a fee, about 60 days a year, for the F.B.I. and other law-enforcement agencies.  He has also served as an anti-fraud consultant to over 60 percent of the Fortune 500 companies in America.

I thought that Catch Me If You Can was such a wonderful movie because it shows how a person can turn their life around. Two years after seeing the movie I decided I wanted to meet Mr. Frank Abagnale, Jr. in person.  I soon learned on the Internet that Mr. Abagnale has his own company called Abagnale & Associates. I clicked “Contact Us” and his e-mail address appeared. I e-mailed Mr. Abagnale explaining that I was 13 and an aspiring journalist. I also said that I really wanted to meet with him for a short interview. About a month later his secretary called me and said that Mr. Abagnale would like to meet for dinner at the Ritz-Carleton in Pentagon City. I gladly accepted.

On April 24 th I walked nervously into the hotel. I sat in the lobby waiting for Mr. Abagnale. Then, right on time the elevator door opened and out came a well-dressed, middle-aged man whom I recognized instantly. It seemed that he also recognized me. He shook my hand and led me to the restaurant where we would spend the next three hours. After we sat down, I asked if I could use my recorder.  My recorder had a memory of an hour and a half. I thought that was more than enough time. But little did I know that Mr. Abagnale would have so much to tell me. We talked and talked about each of our lives. We soon lost track of time until I heard a sound I didn’t want to hear. The digital recorder “memory full” beep went off and I was in deep trouble.  Since I hadn’t even started to ask my questions, my only course was to erase the 90 minutes of our recorded conversation and start over.  The amazing information and fascinating stories were gone, left only to my memory bank.  What I was able to record were his answers to the questions I most wanted to ask.  This is the interview.

"A lot of people in life, like me, go down the wrong path.  But they have that basis, that foundation, to reach out for that rope and pull themselves back to the right road."


Spencer:

You are one of few individuals who have lived successfully in two worlds, the very bad and the very good.  What advice would you give to a teenager who is making poor choices and possibly caught in the tangle of the bad world? 

 

Mr. Abagnale:

First of all, anybody can change their life if they really want to. We live in a wonderful country that gives everybody a second chance, so no matter what bad choices you made in your life, you can change your life, if you want to.  And you have to want to for yourself, not because you want to do it for your parents, or you want to do it because some girl you love, you have to want to do it for yourself. But you certainly can change your life around.  If I could’ve done all the things I did and was able to turn my life around to what I am doing today, then certainly somebody who’s made a couple bad mistakes, like stealing a car or doing some drugs, can certainly do something with their life if they want to.  We live in a great country where everybody gets a second chance, many people get three and four and five chances, but everybody gets a second chance, so I truly believe that everybody can turn their life around, whether they be an alcoholic, whether they be somebody who is a sexual predator, anybody that really wants to change their life has the opportunity to do that, but they have to want to do that.  And I would like people to think of me as someone that was able to turn their life around, when they look back at me and say, “If he could do it, I can do it, I can do something positive with my life.”

 

Spencer:

You once said, “In America, we are a very unethical society.  We’re a society that doesn’t teach ethics at home, and we don’t teach ethics in school.”  What will it take for all of this to change?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, this is something I’m very adamant about.  After thirty years of dealing with crime on this side of the law and my experience in the past, I am a true believer that one of the biggest problems for crime in America today is  lack of ethics and character.  True, we do not teach ethics at home. We don’t teach it in school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. It is difficult to find a four-year college course on ethics, and sometimes when you do find one and you look at it, it’s about ethics three hundred years ago, and not really ethics about life today.  And to me it is very important to teach young people at a very early age, in home and in school, about character and ethics.  Some people get this mixed with religion.  It’s not; it’s about character and ethics, right from wrong. Until we bring it back into schools and homes, we’re not going to see any of these crimes change.  White-collar crime in America now is 660 billion dollars a year, that’s six percent of the gross national product.  That’s just white-collar crime, and has nothing to do with burglary, robbery, theft of property, drugs, narcotics violent crime—just white-collar crime.  And that costs all of us, because in the end, as consumers, we have to pay for all those crimes, not to mention that half of 660 billion is the entire military budget of the United States, 330 billion.  So the money that could be used for good things goes out the door to white-collar crime. What I did almost forty years ago as a teenager is now four thousand times easier than when I did it.  Technology makes crime easier.  So today I don’t have to be a smooth talker, I don’t have to be well-dressed and have my nails manicured and have a great vocabulary, because when I steal now, I’m going to do it from a room in my pajamas on a computer thousands of miles away. No human being’s ever going to interact with me, no human being’s ever going to see me, and there is no witness. And crime is getting easier, it’s getting faster, it’s getting harder to detect, it’s becoming overwhelming to where law enforcement has to be selective about what they investigate and what they don’t based on dollar amounts because there’s so much crime.  And so until we’re willing to really address the root cause of crime, which I believe comes down to character and ethics, it’s not going to change.  People are going to become gradually more and more unethical, think it’s okay to cheat on their taxes, okay to cheat in work, okay to steal something from the job. From there you say it’s okay to steal money, and from there it moves on to other things.  I think to attack crime in America we really need to start thinking about bringing character and ethics back into the schoolroom.  And so I think we really need to look at that, because we know that crime’s only going to get easier. We know crime’s going to get faster, and we know crime’s going to get harder to detect. So we must be willing to address the root cause of crime, which is really that character and ethics issue. One of the things that I go out and am amazed by is how many companies today don’t even have a code of ethics. And when you do find a company that has a code of ethics, they publish it once every five years on the last page of their annual report.  I’m always constantly telling companies, you need to have a code of ethics, and you need to instill it in your employees, and you need then to reinstall it on an annual basis. If you don’t have a code of ethics, you may email me and I will send you a code of ethics, so that all you have to do is fill in your company’s name, and you wouldn’t believe how many times every day my office sends out an attachment with a code of ethics.  But I tell companies that it’s been my experience, and I’ve worked for 65 percent of the Fortune 500 companies in America,  that the companies that I’ve worked for that have a code of ethics have a lot less internal issues than companies that have no code of ethics. So I’m a real strong believer in bringing ethics back into business, bringing it back into schools, back into elementary school, high school and colleges.

 

Spencer:

Last year during my interview with Senator Clinton, I asked her about her idea of making our society into a village.  She said, “The idea of it taking a village is that everyone needs to help families do the best job they can.”  In many of your lectures, you too speak of the importance of the family.  You have said you are more than a father, you are a daddy.  Please tell me what you mean.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, unfortunately, the world is full of fathers, and anybody can be a father, but there are fewer men that are daddies.  And being a daddy is to be able to tell your child every day that you love them, to be there for your children every day, to have an interest in what your children do, to be part of their life, to help them along in their life not only as children but as they grow older and become adults, to always be there for them.  It is very important to me when people ask me to come and talk about my life, and I know that people are fascinated by the things I did, 30 or 40 years ago as a teenager. So when people ask me to come and talk about my life, I always like to take my audience and bring them full circle.  I’ll entertain them a little bit and say yeah, here’s the things I did, but I’m really doing that just to grab their attention because the real message is the last ten minutes of my talk, where I talk about where my life has brought me, and it works really well, because they’re not expecting it, and in the end I bring home the message I really want them to hear, not about how I ripped this off or how I impersonated this guy, but more about what changed my life. And I truly can say to you today that prison didn’t rehabilitate me and I didn’t become a born-again Christian.  I don’t think I just grew up and said, “Oh, those were the misgivings of a kid, misjudgments of a young youth.”  Truly, I met my wife, I fell in love, she gave me three beautiful children, and most of all, she gave me a family. And she changed my life.  She and she alone.  Everything I have today, everything I’ve achieved, who I am, is because of the love of my wife, and my children and the respect they have for me. But having a family and becoming a daddy, and all the things that come with being a daddy, is what changed my life.  I get through to a lot of people, I think, because I am who I am.  If I got up there as a professor of sociology, or I got up there as a psychologist, or someone like that, I probably wouldn’t have the impact.  But because I’ve lived it, and experienced it and where it’s brought me, I think it has a lot more impact when I say it.  And that’s a very important message for me to deliver.

 

Spencer:

It is.  I’m very interested in what you do now.  Could you please briefly explain?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Most of my life today is spent thinking out of the box for corporations, companies, and for banks. When they have problems come up, they come to me to find solutions to those problems.  If they’re trying to protect an item from being counterfeited, or whether it’s a pharmaceutical or drug or a piece of paper or plastic or a birth certificate or a car title, they come to me.  I’ve designed the check for ADP. They are the largest payroll provider in the world, they write 800 million checks a year, I designed their check; the second largest is Paycheck. I designed their check for them so they don’t have those checks counterfeited. I designed the Florida birth certificate. It has a street value of $5,000. The state of Florida didn’t want it counterfeited. I designed it in ’96, and it’s still just as good today and secure today as it was in ’96. So I do a lot of that.   I’m a real strong believer in education, so I go out and speak 4 days a week. Sometimes I’m speaking to law enforcement people at the FBI Academy. The next day I may be speaking to a group of bankers, and it would be all about fraud and embezzlement. Banks will sometimes invite their corporate customers in to come hear me speak, and they’ll invite their customers.  Tomorrow morning I’ll go to the CIA, and I’ll lecture to about 3000 people. Wednesday I’ll be at the FBI Academy, where not only will I be teaching, but I’m going to film a video that we’re making that we’re going to send out to law enforcement agencies all over the United States about identity theft, to encourage law enforcement not to treat this as an idle crime, but to investigate these crimes to the fullest. So I do a lot of things like that, and that’s how I occupy my time, but it’s always interesting and there’s always something new going on.

 

Spencer:

What was the most interesting case of embezzlement, forgery or fraud that you have helped to solve?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

There’s been a lot of them, from as big as WorldCom and Enron to Tyco down to just criminals who have come up with elaborate scams.  People are very creative, and as time goes by, people become even more creative, so it never ceases to amaze me, the ideas that people come up with to scam somebody else or to scam a company or to find a loophole. I approach everything with the philosophy that there is no foolproof system, nor will there ever be. And anyone who believes they have a foolproof system has failed to take into consideration the creativity of fools. So if a man or a woman develops something, me or anybody else, there’s going to be a man or a woman who can defeat it. And actually, Sherlock Holmes said it best, he said, “What one invents, one will discover.” And I truly believe that. So what you try to do is make it so difficult for someone to do it that they’ll go somewhere else. That’s all you really can do.  And then you constantly make it better than it was before. The problem today, a lot of software’s developed and then it’s only good for a year or two and somebody finds a loophole, and the people that developed it never enhanced it, never made it any better.  They made all their money and then they went somewhere else. When I develop something, I constantly enhance it and make it better, and constantly stay on top of it, because I know that things are constantly changing.  I have never said to someone, “Oh, I can design this so it’ll be impossible to counterfeit.” That would be stupid for me to say that. What I say is, “I’ll make it so difficult that it’s not likely anyone will try to do it.” But that’s all you can do. And that’s basically what I try to do.

 

Spencer:

What’s something creative that someone’s done that has really been interesting? Is there anything you can think of?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, when I think about creative people, one of my favorite stories is about two young boys in New Jersey who are eighteen.  They took an ad out in the New York Post that said, “We’re selling the top ten X-rated videos for $49.95. These videos normally are $100 apiece. This one time offer, $49.95, one order per customer, is yours.  No credit cards, no cash.  Check or money order only to PO Box so-and-so, New Jersey.”  Now these kids actually went to the post office, said “I need to rent a post office box,” showed their license, gave their social security number, filled out everything perfectly legitimately, paid the $175 for six months for the post office box, went down to Summit Bank in New Jersey, walked in, opened a DBA business account, put a thousand dollars in it, gave their real names, social security number, date of birth, didn’t lie about anything. Took this ad out.  So you saw the ad, you sent a check or money order to them for this video.  They would get it, they would deposit it into their bank account. The next day, they’d write you a letter back that they generated on their computer, and it would say, “Thank you very much for your order. Unfortunately, due to the huge demand, we’re unable to fill it, so please find enclosed a check for $49.95 to cover your full refund.” And in the envelope was a check, drawn off of Summit Bank on their account, the money was there, the check was perfectly good, but the name of their DBA was printed in bold, fire-engine red letters in the top left-hand corner of the check, and the name of the DBA was “Child Pornography Videos, Incorporated.”  So naturally, nobody cashed the checks, and they kept all the money.

 

Spencer:

Incredible.  Can you tell me one more?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

One time I had a guy who goes down to the phone company and says, “I give out advice on the stock market, so I’d like one of those 900 numbers.  So that when people call me, I’m going to charge them $35 for the first minute and $5 for every minute thereafter.” So the phone company said, “Yeah, we have that.  So, he set up the account, perfectly legal.  Every morning he would get up, and he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, he was in his early twenties.  He never got dressed. He’d just get his cup of coffee and go sit at his desk, and wherever he left off in the Yellow Pages the day before he’d call.  For example, he’d call up and he’d go, “Triple A Air Conditioning?  I’d like to speak to somebody about ordering some air conditioners.” Well, ninety-nine percent of the time, he’d get voice mail, and a salesman would say, “My name is Bill, I’m out of the office right now, but I’ll get back with you, leave a message.” “Hey, Bill, I’m looking to buy five ten-ton air conditioners, I need them immediately, give me a call.” So Bill calls back and says, “you called, you wanted to buy some air conditioners?” “No, I’m sorry, you’ve got the wrong number.”  Thirty-five dollars!  But Bill, being a salesperson, thinks he may have misdialed. So, Bill calls back.  So, he often got people twice.

 

Spencer:

Now that we are in the computer age, electronic commerce provides an easier opportunity for fraud and scams. Is there a way to better coordinate our federal agencies?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, this is a lesson in life I’ll give you that I’ve learned over the last thirty years.  It’s very unfortunate, but we live in a society that is built around one little term: “cost of doing business.” And let me explain that to you.  Let’s take American Express. American Express has about two and a half billion dollars a year in credit card fraud that they lose. They have a lot more than that, but a lot of fraud charges get charged back to the merchant, so in the end, American Express didn’t lose the money. This is just fraud, now, this has nothing to do with bankruptcies, and charge-offs, and bad debt collections, this is strictly fraud.  So these would be stolen cards, altered cards, counterfeit cards, cards applied for under Franklse pretenses. So when American Express says, “I lost two and a half billion dollars” in the paper, people go, yeah, that’s enormous. What American Express didn’t say is, “I earned 300 billion dollars in revenue.” So their losses are about 1 percent of their revenue. At the end of the year, American Express got a fifty percent tax write-off from the government for those losses, so they lost 1.2 billion—the taxpayer picked up the other losses. Then they took that 1.2 billion, they put it back into an operating budget and they send it out through increased rates, fees, and service charges. So in the end, it really didn’t cost them a lot of money, and so fraud is just a cost of doing business. So it’d be like you and me tomorrow, if I said to you, “Look, we’ve been selling these backpacks through mail order, but I think we should put them on a website and sell them.”  And you say, “Okay, well, how much is that going to cost?” “Well, we’ll have to develop this website, cost us 25 thousand.” And you go, “Okay, well what if we make the website real secure?” “Well, that’d cost another 25 thousand. I say we don’t do that.”  “Well, what if we have fraud?” “Well, we’ll have some fraud, but it’ll be insignificant to what we earn.”  So at the end of the year, I tell you, “Well, we went online and we made six million dollars, but we had about 110 thousand dollars in fraud, but we’ll get to write that off.” “Oh, okay, well, I don’t care, I still made six million.” And that’s basically the philosophy of this country.  And that’s why people always say to me, “You know, I went to the grocery store, and I used my MasterCard to buy groceries, but I gotta tell you, no one ever saw the card, the checker was over here, I was six feet away, I went like this, didn’t enter anything, just credit, and I walked out with 200 dollars’ worth of groceries.”  But my question to you, friend, is, “How does the teller know that I wasn’t you, I didn’t steal the card from a woman, it was a woman’s name on the card?”  Well, they don’t know. But what happened there is very simple.  MasterCard and Visa said to Pathmark, “Here’s our procedure.  To take a credit card, you have to check the signature on the back, you have to check the expiration date, and if it’s over this amount, you need to ask for ID.” Pathmark goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, we’re not doing that. We’ve got hundreds of people going through our store, we’re trying to provide customer service, so we’re not going to do that.” So MasterCard goes, “Oh, you don’t wanna do that?” “No.”  “Not a problem. Then you don’t have to check expiration, you don’t have to check ID, you don’t have to check the card.  However, if our customer says to us that they were not the one who made that charge in your store, we’re sending it back to you. You’re responsible for it.”  So Pathmark goes, “Okay, well, my losses are five percent of my revenue, but I can afford to do that, I’ll write fifty percent of that off.”  So that’s all they’re doing.  Everything has come down to cost of business. Now here’s the problem: if you run a society based on “it’s just the cost of doing business,” that means you’re not doing anything about crime. And if you’re not doing anything about crime, you’re encouraging crime. And today, because we do nothing about crime, we’re just encouraging more and more crime. And more and more people now say, “Well, what’s the difference from what you did thirty-five years ago and doing it today?” I say, “Well, thirty-five years ago, you went to prison for it.” Today I probably wouldn’t have gone to jail. I would’ve ended up with community service or probation, and instead of making two and a half million, I probably would’ve made twenty-five million. And that’s the difference between today and back then, and that’s true, and that’s a sad state of affairs that not only is it easier to do than what I did twenty-five, thirty years ago, but there’s also less chance that you’d go to jail for it today. And so I think, I’ve always contended that if the federal government tomorrow said, “We’re changing the tax code, and one of the things we’re changing is you can no longer write off fifty percent of your losses, so that you’re more responsible for the losses you assume, we’re going to only let you write off ten percent,” well, you’d see a drastic change in the way companies do business.

 

Spencer:

Why doesn’t that happen?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, yeah, who’s going to be the senator to introduce the bill? That’s the problem, nobody wants to introduce the bill. But I think it should be a bill.  I mean, I think, if you tomorrow just simply said, “Look, you should have some liability in this, the taxpayers shouldn’t pick up all this money, the government shouldn’t have to pick up all this money, losses in tax revenue and income, so from now on I’m only letting you write off ten percent of your losses,” well, tomorrow they’d start changing the way they did business, how they’d investigate these crimes, they’d go out and make prosecutions, they’d go out and do it. But as long as you can write it off your taxes, what’s the motivation to do anything about it? You just assume it. So no one’s going to admit—American Express, Visa—no one’s going to get up and say “I don’t care about fraud.” But the truth is, they’re not willing to spend a lot of money to prevent it or do anything about it, because, in bottom line, it’s not going to cost them a great deal of money.  They’re going to write it off.

 

Spencer:

In any other country, is the rule different, in terms of tax write-off?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Yes.  Most countries don’t allow losses to be written off, so there’s a lot more concern. If you have a credit card in Great Britain and someone steals your card, you’re responsible up to 300 dollars. So you have some responsibility. Here, you have no responsibility.  People say, “Well, I don’t care if they get my card, I’ll just tell the credit card company it wasn’t me, and I’m not responsible.”  But in Great Britain, they make you responsible for the first 300 dollars, so you start saying, “Well, I’d better be a little more careful with my card. I don’t want to be out 300 dollars.”

 

Spencer:

That’s a good thing.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

All that is a good thing. Again, everything here is based around customer service, so everyone wants to provide better service, so they want to make it easier for people to do it.

 

Spencer:

Technology’s getting so great, why hasn’t anyone thought of, or invented, using your fingerprint as your credit card?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, when you start getting into fingerprinting and biometrics and all of these technologies that are available today, we do have in America, more so than any other country in the world, this whole concept of privacy. And Americans are very conscientious about their privacy. So this is why we don’t have a national identity card, and in my opinion, we never will have.  The public will never stand for a national identity card. I remember years ago 3- M Company devised a driver’s license that is literally almost impossible to counterfeit or alter.  As soon as people got the whiff of that, they said, “Absolutely not, that’s an identity card, you’re turning the license into an identity card.” So this is why national health care—you know, the biggest scare there was you were going to have a card that identified you nationally.  And people are very funny.  They don’t want to have their eye retina scanned. They don’t want to have their fingerprint scanned. There’s a lot of people in America who have never been fingerprinted. And they don’t want some bank having their fingerprints. So, as Americans, they consider it an invasion of their privacy. Biometrics and fingerprinting have been great, like for building access purposes, property access, things where a company can have internal controls based on fingerprint.   But the minute a bank says, “Okay, to use my ATM, you have to put your fingerprint down”?  “Ooh, I’m not doing that. . .”

 

Spencer:

You don’t think that’s ever going to happen?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

No, I don’t see that happening.  I see people fighting that. And again, the person’s going to say to the bank, “Wait, who am I protecting, you or me? Because the ATM money’s your money. So now you want me to give you my fingerprint, information about me, and to protect you. Doesn’t really protect me if it’s protecting you.”

Citibank years ago had put your picture on the credit card, and people said, oh, this is great.  But I said to Citibank, “Okay, if I live in Oklahoma, we don’t have Citibank.  So if I apply for your credit card, how do you get my picture?”  “Oh, you have to send it to us.”  “Well, how do you know I’m sending you my picture?  I might be sending you his picture.  So there’s a flaw in the program. Those things are all out there, but as we’ve seen today, they’re being used, but they’re all being used for those purposes. There’s nobody that has come out and said, “Let’s put it in an ATM” or “Let’s scan people’s eyes.” And now you have  these companies that have all this information and have lost this information to identity thieves, have stolen and broke in and hacked it. So now people are even more paranoid: “I don’t want you to have all that information, ‘cause you’re not even keeping it real secure.”  So I don’t think those things have a place, maybe years and years from now, but that’ll be an uphill battle to get the public to go along with.

 

Spencer:

A few weeks ago I met with Michael Fox. I asked him what advice he had for teenagers who are facing difficult challenges.  What he said was so meaningful that it made me think of you. He said, “The advice I give is, when things are challenging, step back for a second and look at the greater landscape of your life and see the opportunities and blessings and the people that are around you, and the love and support you have. You have to believe in yourself—it’s really a good life.” Does this sound familiar?  Isn’t this what you did when you left prison?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Absolutely.  I would agree with that a hundred percent. Anytime I find myself feeling sorry for myself, I think about somebody that’s a lot worse off than me, and I think about all the things that I have.  And I think that’s a great way to deal with life.  That even if you’re sick, someone else is dying. If there’s something wrong with you, there’s always someone that’s in a worse situation than you.  And if you put everything in perspective and think about all the good things that have happened, all these things that are going on with you become irrelevant, and you realize that it’s really not that big a thing to worry about. And yes, you definitely have to believe in yourself.  I accomplished all the things I accomplished, when I was doing the things I did, not because I was a genius or brilliant. I don’t think I was brilliant.  Because if I was really brilliant, I don’t think I would’ve found it necessary to break the law in order to find a way to survive. I think that, for me, it was strictly a matter of getting caught up in all of those things, and then everything became a challenge, to see if I could get it to the next level.  I mean, I had no desire to be a doctor in a hospital, but when I saw the opportunity that I could actually go work in a hospital, then I had to ask myself, could I get away with it? And if I could get away with it, how long could I get away with it?

 

Spencer:

There was a very interesting line in the movie, I thought, that Hanratty (the FBI agent) said, remember that line? He was in the airport, and he said, “We all need to keep our agents in this airport.” And another agent said, “Well, why doesn’t he go to New York or Atlanta?  He can go anywhere.” And Hanratty says, “because I’m not in New York.  I’m not in Atlanta.”

 

Mr. Abagnale:

And that’s one of the best lines in the film, you’re absolutely right. And that’s how he knew that I was antagonizing him.

 

Spencer:

It was like a game.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Right. And so to me it became more of a challenge.   When you’re very young, you don’t have fear.  I always tell people, had I been a little older, had I been twenty-three, twenty-four, I could’ve never pulled off half the things I pulled off. But when you’re real young, you have no fear of being caught. You don’t sit there and think about consequences. You don’t rationalize everything to death. I didn’t walk into banks with a check to cash and thinking, “Okay, here’s the big plan. I’m gonna go in. . .” I just walked in! And I dealt with everything like that.

 

Spencer:

What was it like working with Spielberg on “Catch Me If You Can”?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

As I told you, he is an absolutely wonderful  man. He is a truly very compassionate man, a very loving man. And he’s a great father to his children. He was just an unbelievable person. I don’t think if I live another forty years I’ll meet anybody that more impressed me in my life than him.  He’s an extremely creative, talented individual, very down to earth, there’s nothing assuming about him, everything about him is genuine. And the same can be said about Tom Hanks and Leo. And you have to understand, from someone like me—first of all, I never watch TV. When people say that, I literally don’t watch television.  I read newspapers and things, but I don’t watch the news. I don’t watch TV and television shows. And as you know, in our society, if you don’t watch a lot of TV, it’s hard to even have a conversation with someone, ‘cause they go, “You never watched Seinfeld?”

And the same way with going to movies. I’ve never gone to all these Steven Spielberg movies; people say, “You never saw ‘Jaws’? You never saw--” And I never did those things. So I always have looked at Hollywood through kinda tinted glasses, thinking that they’re all really a bunch of very self-centered, plastic people, and so to meet—to have met them, and then found them to be really so genuine and such really nice, truly nice people, was a real awakening for me.  And I’m sure there are a lot of people in Hollywood that are the stereotype that you believe them to be, but they are just three people that would just really turn out to be the total opposite of what I thought about Hollywood and about people in general. So that was a great experience. And meeting Spielberg was amazing. He’s a really special person.

 

Spencer:

He seemed that way when I met him. In speaking about the movie, you once said you hoped it would bring home an important message about family, childhood and divorce. Would you please explain?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Well, if you ask me, when I watched the movie, my wife said to me, “So, what do you think?” I said I was very pleased. And I said, “I think there were a lot of important messages in it.” And she said to me, “Oh, really? Like what?” I said, “Well, one, I think it was an important message about divorce, and that’s how divorce affects some children, and how it can affect your life. I think there was a message in there about redemption—that you can make mistakes and you can do something, and turn your life around and do something very positive with your life.  And there was a message in there about the innocence of the time: that back in the ‘60s, you could get away with much more. We didn’t have airport security, we didn’t have bombings and hijackings.”And people didn’t question. If you said you were a pilot, people believed you were a pilot.  They had no reason to doubt you.  And all of that has changed, those times will never come back again. We’ve lost that, and it’ll never return. And I think he was trying to bring home the innocence of the times and to show that why I was able to get away with the things I got away with. And I think the movie had a lot of those kind of messages in it. And when you confront him and ask him, he says, “Absolutely.” Those were all the things he was trying to show through my story. And that’s what he loved about my story. And what I found amazing is,  many people that went to that movie had never heard of me, so they were just going to the film. And like a lot of people later, said, “I didn’t know it was a true story. I thought it was just some movie Hollywood was doing, and I’m watching this film, and at the end, it goes ‘Frank Abagnale,’” and they go, “Wait a minute. This is a real person? This guy actually did it?”

 

Spencer:

That’s what makes it so interesting.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Yeah. People had no idea until the end of the movie that it was really about a real person, and a lot of that came from the fact that for years, I never did interviews, I never discussed all those things with people, and so a lot of that very few people knew.

Because then it had happened, and Johnny Carson, and shows like that.  So as soon as that book came out, it went to the number four on the top best-seller—New York Times for a long time. But as that died away, those people kinda went away. So some people would say to their kids, “Oh, I read about this guy years ago, we’ve got to go see this movie.” “I’m gonna go see it ‘cause Tom Hanks is in it and it’s a Spielberg movie.” And as they were watching it, they didn’t realize this was a real story. I’ve been amazed by the thousands of emails I’ve gotten, how much people loved this movie.  And Steven Spielberg said—I sat in his home with my wife, and he looked right at me, and said, “I’ll be very honest with you,” he said, “I knew the movie would do well, but,” he said, “I never dreamed it would do as well as it did.” He said, “I also never dreamed that it would have the appeal as it did from people as young as eight to people as old as eighty.”  It went to Europe and did so well, it went to the Orient and did so well—it was a story that had world appeal. People just loved this story.

 

Spencer:

You are an internationally respected expert and lecturer on fraud prevention. Your speeches are inspirational. Teenagers often get caught in the initial high associated with doing bad things. Have you ever thought of taking your message to schools? Perhaps a video presentation that could reach millions of students?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Okay, well, first of all, I would do that for free. Tomorrow, if someone approached me and said, “I want to come and record you at one of your presentations, and then I’m going to take that video and through a grant, or whatever, provide that to schools for free, what do you want out of it?” I wouldn’t want ten cents. I’d tell them I’d do it tomorrow. That’s a great idea, I’ve never thought of it. I get hundreds of requests—I mean, I could literally go out and charge $25,000 a talk and speak five days a week. Like Monday night I’m going to Philadelphia, and I’m speaking to 2,500 people, that’s a lecture series put on by a university there and every year they bring in four of the nation’s top speakers, and you buy a year’s pass to come hear all four.  So I’m one of the four speakers. And I’ll do those kind of things and go speak about my life, because I know people are fascinated by it.  So I can bring that message. Sometimes I will go to a school—I don’t charge any money.  The problem today is that kids are not getting any positive message.  All the messages that they get are negative. If they’re watching TV, the messages they’re getting is, it’s okay to do this, it’s okay to that, if they’re watching sports figures, they see them behave in unethical ways, and yet they’re paid millions of dollars. There are no heroes. I was a real big fan of The Rifleman. So, Leo (DiCaprio) gave me a replica of the rifle used in the movie.  It was a thirty-minute television western back when I was a kid your age.

 

Spencer:

Like Bonanza, that kind of thing?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Right, that kind of thing. But my wife, several years ago, brought me a series of the whole show, now on videotape. And I would tell her, y’know, if you watch every show—which really, in reality, was about twenty-three minutes because of ads and all that—but in every show, there was a message. This was a western, with people being shot up and stuff, but there was a moral message. So if you were a kid watching that, you were entertained by the western, but you also walked away with an important message from the show. And that was just built in to TV. And whether it was “Father Knows Best” or “I Love Lucy,” there were always kind of morals.

 I always say to people that I was raised in a good family.  I had a dad who loved me, I had a mother who loved me, I had parents who taught me right from wrong, I was raised in a Catholic school, so I was given to believe in God and religion. A lot of times people in life, like me, go down the wrong path. But they have that basis—that foundation—to reach out for that rope and pull themselves back to the right road.  And I truly believe that the things that my parents instilled in me came back to me while I was in prison, and I realized that I had the tools to turn my life around, and do the right thing.  The problem you have with young people today is, they have none of these tools. They’re not getting them at home, they’re not getting them in school, they don’t go to church, there’s no religion. So when they go down that wrong road, there’s no rope to reach out to, and I think for a lot of them, that that’s a big problem. They have nowhere to reach.

 

Spencer:

My last question. In the movie—how true was the airport scene, where you surrounded yourself with female college students who were dressed up like airline attendants so you could elude the authorities?  Did this happen, or was it a Spielberg dream?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

No. That actually happened. You remember that I actually went out to universities and did recruit these girls. The reason I did is, when I started to go over to Europe and cash checks, I’d walk down to the hotel lobby in the morning to check out and I’d say, “by the way, I have this Pan-Am expense check, would you mind cashing it?” And, they would say, “Fine, do you have your Pan-Am ID” and I’d endorse it, and they’d cash it. They would often ask, “Well, where’s the rest of your crew?”  So I started thinking, what if I had a crew? Because then I could come down and cash eight checks instead of one check. So I went out to the University of Arizona in Tucson, I wrote them a letter, said a Pan-Am recruiter’s coming, and interviewed all these girls. I actually selected eight girls, and I told them that “Pan-Am didn’t hire you, but Pan-Am would like to offer you a job for the summer, to go around Europe and be photographed for billboards and posters, and we can’t use our real flight attendants, because we’d have to pull them off the flight line, and there’s union regulations, so--”

 

Spencer:

They had no idea what was happening.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

They had no idea. For two months, they traveled with me, and in every city, I hired a commercial photographer, and he’d go out and take all these pictures of them. And the funny part was, the photographer would say, “Where do you want all these proofs sent?” “Pan-Am Public Relations, 200 Park Avenue, New York, New York, 10010”

 

Spencer:

They got all these pictures? And they didn’t know where they were coming from.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

So they were getting hundreds of pictures, and every day they were going, “Who are these girls?” And they’d send them around to the base, no one could identify them, and the security guy at Pan-Am kept saying, “I know that Abagnale is behind this, there’s got to be some scam behind it.” And that’s what it was.  And when I came down in the morning, I would say to the front desk, “I’ve got eight expense checks the crew would like to cash, they’ve all been endorsed, can you cash them?” And he’d look over there and go, “Yeah, okay.” But, I never let these girls break the law, so when I would pay them every two weeks, I’d say, “Here’s your paycheck from Pan-Am.” I said, “And if you endorse it, I’ll get it cashed for you.” So they would endorse them, but I would just rip them up and then I’d give them the cash money and say, “Here’s your money.” So I never let them break the law.  Johnny Carson had them all on one night.  I was on his show nine times back in the seventies. He said to me one night, “So Frank, whatever happened to those girls at University of Arizona, you recruited all of them, you took them in and out of airports, you avoided the police with them--” I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I never heard from them.” Johnny said, “Well, I found them all, and I’ve got them backstage.” First I thought he was kidding. He said, “No, I’m serious. I got them all backstage, and I’m getting ready to bring them out.” And he brought all those girls out, and they were all married and everything.  But he asked them, “Well, how do you feel about it?” “Well, you know, we never really had any hard feelings, because,” they said, “he never let us break the law, which he could have, He always made sure we were taken care of, he was kind of like a house parent, he always made sure we were in our rooms. The real reason I did that was I didn’t want them talking to anybody. I always stayed in these hotels where the airline people stayed. So, I was afraid they’d sit down with a real stewardess and go, “Oh, you’re with Pan-Am, what base are you out of?” “Oh no, I don’t fly.” “What?” “No, I’m just on this public relations tour and I’m getting my picture taken.”  Somebody might get suspicious. I never let them talk to anybody, I was always moving around. 

 Remember the scene when the FBI found me in my apartment? That really happened. But when Spielberg spoke with the real FBI agent (played by Tom Hanks), he told it really like it happened. Spielberg said, “I’m going to take his version, because not only is it real, but it’s even better than what I wrote in the script.” The FBI agent (Abagnale protects his real name) basically said to Spielberg, “You know, I knocked on the door and said ‘FBI,’ I opened the door, nobody was in the room, I had my gun drawn, I heard somebody in the bathroom, so I went to the bathroom door and said, ‘Come out, FBI, with your hands up.’” He said, “this guy walked out in a suit, said, ‘Hi, I’m with the Secret Service, we already got Abagnale, he’s downstairs.’” The agent said, “I need your credentials.”  The credentials were handed over but he never opened them, because he kept talking. Y’know, he kept talking a mile a minute, going ‘Well, we got this stuff over here, and we found this, and you can take that, etc.  Spielberg said to me, “How did you have the gall to do this?” I said, “It’s mainly desperation.” You’re just giving it a shot, you don’t think it’s going to work. You’re just saying, ‘I’ll try it.’Yeah, there was luck and all that.

There were two big scams that were famous.

 

Spencer:

I want to hear this.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

The first one was, I had gone into a bank—and see, everything I did, this is back to that adolescent thing.  It was all ad-libbed, there was no effort.  No thinking it out or anything, stuff just came to me.  So nothing was premeditated. I’m walking down a street in Chicago, I’m counting five twenty-dollar bills. I see this sign on a small bank, says “Open a checking account.” So I’m standing out there, and I think to myself, I’ll go in this bank, and I’ll open a checking account with this hundred dollars. I’ll give them this phony Pan-Am ID for identification. In two weeks, the bank will mail me two hundred printed checks in a box. With this ID, I’ll be able to cash those checks anywhere.  So I go in and open the account, and the new accounts person comes back, “Here’s a receipt for your deposit, these are some temporary checks, we’ll be mailing your printed checks in ten days.” So because I’m young, I’m inquisitive, and I just said to the girl, “I notice you didn’t give me any deposit slips.”  “Oh, no, they come from the check printer, they’ll be in the back of your checkbook, you’ll get them in about ten days.” I said, “Oh, I see.  Well, what if I want to make a deposit tomorrow?” “Well, you just go over to that table there in the lobby and help yourself to a blank deposit slip and then just write this number in I just assigned you, and use those until you get your blank ones—your printed ones.” So I walked over, took a stack, nobody cared, and I went back to my hotel room, and I kept looking at them, and I though . I went out and bought that a  magnetic encoder, and I printed my account number in magnetic ink on the bottom of all these blanks. And then when I went back to the bank, put them on the shelf, everyone who came in put them in my account—put their money in my account.  So I called up the next day and said, “So what’s my balance?” “Forty-one thousand, eight hundred !” 

Spencer:

What’s the other one that you were talking about?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

I went out to the airport in Boston, it was a quarter to twelve at night. I run up to the ticket counter, the guy says all flights are through now for the night.  So I sat down thinking to myself, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” And I noticed they were all sticking their cash and receipts in these big bank bags. Then they zipped them closed, locked them, put them under their arm, walk around the counter, and they’d go down the hallway to this bank that was in the terminal. And I’m just sitting there watching them.  And they’d walk up and they’d stick their key in the night box, throw the bag down, make sure it went all the way down into the thing, closed it, and locked it. Here comes Hertz, here comes Avis, here comes Delta, here comes the gift shop lady, here comes the other ticket counter. . .So I’m watching.

 

Spencer:

That’s all the money they made during the day, right?

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Yeah.  And all the receipts. And they’re putting them in there.  So the next night, I come back to the airport, quarter to twelve. I had rented a bank guard uniform from a costume store in Boston. And I hung a sign on the night box that said, “Night Box Out of Order. Leave Deposits With Guard.” Everyone left all the money with me. And the funny part—I was sitting there nervous, thinking to myself, “Now, how can a box be out of order?”  What if someone catches on?  But, no one did.

Spencer:

You had to have some fun doing all of this.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

But see, all of that is back to adolescence and not being worried about getting caught.

 

Spencer:

Fearless.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

Fearless, not getting caught, consequences—

 

Spencer:

And you didn’t get caught.

 

Mr. Abagnale:

And that’s why I did a lot of that stuff.  And of course, I always knew I would get caught.  It wasn’t the thought that I’ll never get caught, it was the thought that I didn’t know what—if I get caught, would be the consequences, all that.  They’ll either catch me at this or they’ll catch me at something else.”

 

Spencer:

Yeah. “The law sometimes sleeps, but it never dies.”