There’s never a dull moment when you’re Frank Abagnale. He’s had a life most of us can only dream about.
Before becoming a consultant for the FBI, Mr. Abagnale spent his time jet-setting around the globe, flanked by beautiful women and with an endless supply of money. It all came crashing down, however, when his impersonations and career in thievery finally caught up with him. But the charismatic and brilliant Mr. Abagnale wouldn’t stay down long, serving fewer than five years in prison before he began to work for the FBI. After more than three decades, the founder of Abagnale & Associates remains one of the world’s top authorities on fraud and swindling.
Today, he educates people on how to avoid becoming victims of fraud. He’s also the author of two books about fraud prevention: “The Art of the Steal’ and “Stealing Your Life.” Ten years ago, Steven Spielberg produced “Catch Me If You Can,” the movie based on Mr. Abagnale’s 1980 book of the same name. The film starred Leonardo DiCaprio. A Broadway musical version followed in 2011. (The show opens on Jan. 1 for a six-day engagement at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers. See story on page C1.) Naples Town Hall Distinguished Speaker ACtt Series was delighted to welcome Mr. Abagnale as one of our speakers in 2011.
Crime prevention remains a hot topic today, and we sat down with Mr. Abagnale to get his latest tips for staying safe in our modern digital world.
Q: Once upon a time, you engaged in clever impersonations of an airline pilot, a chief resident of a hospital, an attorney, a college instructor and a stockbroker. In the movies, good guys and bad guys alike pose as members of trusted professions to perpetrate their schemes. Just how vulnerable are we to credential hacking and this type of impersonation?
A: I believe there are many people today impersonating professions they are not qualified to be in. For example, there may be a medic from the military who is practicing as a general practitioner in a small town. It would not be difficult to do because he/she would be able to diagnose most ailments and then refer the patient to a specialist. Creating credentials to accomplish this today is a thousand times easier than when I did it, because of technology like color copiers, scanners, Photoshop and the ease of graphic design with a Mac. Of the impersonations I accomplished, the one that would be more difficult today is the airline pilot. Back in the ’60s when I did it, hijackings, terrorists, bombings or even airport security didn’t exist.
Q: Identity theft is often a crime of opportunity. Most people know that information can be hacked from a personal computer by programs such as Trojans and Bots introduced by e-mail. Alarmingly, personal information can also be compromised by a single corrupt clerical employee. This often occurs in a trusted environment such as a doctor’s office where information is voluntarily submitted. How real is this threat? How do we “comply” with requests for information while protecting ourselves from would-be thieves?
A: This threat is very real. Last year, more than 15 million people (one every four seconds) in the U.S. became a victim of identity theft. Information is everywhere. I make my home in South Carolina, and last month, someone hacked into the South Carolina Department of Tax Revenue and stole more than 3.5 million tax returns and 600,000 credit/debit card numbers. Today, it only takes one person working at a company or a government agency to open an e-mail or go look at a website on a computer at work, which opens the door to a would-be hacker. Individuals should only provide their Social Security Number when it is absolutely necessary. Finally, to protect yourself from identity theft, I recommend you do what I do myself. First, I use a micro-cut shredder that turns paper into confetti. (Documents put through) ribbon shredders and cross-cut shredders can be put back together. There is no difference in price, just be sure it says micro-cut on the box. Second, I use a credit-monitoring service and have since the early ’90s. The one I use is called PrivacyGuard. Whichever one you chose, vet it by making sure of two things: that they monitor all three credit bureaus 24/7, and that they notify you in real time if someone is attempting to use you SSN or credit.
Q: After getting to know you, two traits that impressed me most were your high regard for personal integrity and your strong feelings regarding the vital importance of parenting. This, no doubt, sprang from life experiences and led to your own deliberately honed convictions. How is society ailing from the apparent evaporation of these two foundational principles? What is the ultimate price to be paid?
A: Unfortunately, we live in a society that doesn’t teach ethics at home and doesn’t teach ethics in school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. Most universities and even corporations no longer have a code of ethics. Consequently, we are raising an entire generation that is unethical and has a tremendous lack of character in its make-up. I cannot overemphasize this point. Ethics must start at home with parents teaching their children right from wrong, as well as manners. This must be followed through in school and certainly in a university. Unfortunately, children today are bombarded with negative information from TV, movies, the Internet and celebrities.
Q: Yours is a household name and you are an intriguing and celebrated character. It is certain that most people do not know the real Frank Abagnale. Without compromising your privacy, could you tell us something about yourself that perhaps you have never publicly revealed or discussed?
A: More than any other accomplishment in my life, this is what really matters to me: the blessing of knowing the amazing individuals I am privileged to call my wife and sons.
Q: Imagine yourself on a private, roundthe world cruise on your new 175-foot schooner. As you enter into the port at Monaco and the launch pulls alongside to deliver you and your lovely companion to the Monte Carlo Casino, would you consider for us how you would go about convincing them that you were James Bond?
A: If it were me, I would have made up phony credentials from the British Secret Service.