Catching Up With Frank Abagnale
By Felix Winternitz
You’ve got to credit Frank W. Abagnale Jr. with audacity, if not modesty.
How many famous white-collar criminals, after all, are so emboldened that they’d happily show up before an audience at a Jesuit Catholic university—a righteous crowd which includes many ethics gurus as well as those ultimate workers of the white-collar persuasion—and immediately proceed to brag on their notorious exploits and seedy criminal past?
In a discussion approaching a trip to the confessional booth, Abagnale does just this and more. Delivering his lecture titled “Catch Me If You Can: The Art of the Steal” during the Cintas Institute for Business Ethics 2012 speakers’ series, this modern-day pirate proves himself still both candid and crafty, resilient and remorseful.
“I consider my past immoral, illegal and unethical,” he told the capacity crowd of 650. “It is something I am not proud of. It’s a burden I live with every single day.”
Abagnale may be, in fact, America’s foremost fraudster. In a career littered with check scams, tricky escapades and elaborate embezzlements, he once swindled millions from corporate coffers. A Hollywood biopic "Catch Me If You Can" eventually turned the great impostor into a household name, with screen star Leo DiCaprio portraying Abagnale and Tom Hanks co-starring as the FBI agent who dogs the charming if conniving character at every turn.
Sometimes impudent, often nervy, the true-life Abagnale does offer up glimmers of lessons that he’s sorely learned along the way. Crime doesn’t pay. Well, it does, until you face serious jail time: “I always knew I’d get caught. Only a fool would think otherwise.”
[More wisdom from Frank Abagnale]
Addressing a full house of business ethics majors and other students for his April 10 appearance at the James and Caroline Duff Banquet Center, the consummate forger and thief amused and cajoled the audience to a standing ovation.
Reflecting on his early life of hoaxes and bluffs, he notes: “I’ve turned down three pardons from three Presidents of the United States.” In other words, he offers no excuses for his behavior and no special favors.
A product of strict Catholic upbringing and a string of parochial schools, young Frank embarked early upon his odyssey of financial carnage—a counterfeiting crime spree that spanned three continents and a half-dozen years. The teenager diligently impersonated airline pilots, an assistant district attorney, a pediatrician, even a college professor.
“This is a great country, in which everybody gets a second chance,” says Abagnale of a moral that can be gleaned from his life story.
After stealing a Pan Am captain’s uniform and realizing that airport banks across the world would now cash his fake paychecks, no questions asked, the young runaway from Bronxville, N.Y., proceeded to scam bank tellers out of millions during the 1960s—the heyday of airliner travel and easy money.
“At 16, I was 6 feet tall. And I always had gray in my hair,” he says. “So I decided to alter one digit on (my driver’s license), changing my birth date from 1948 to 1938. I suddenly became 26 years old” and now just old enough to pass for a co-pilot. He credits a visit to Manhattan’s Commodore Hotel for his first illegal inspiration: “I saw a flight crew coming out of the hotel, and I thought, that’s it! I can pose as a pilot and fly all over the world.”
Where in the world did he finesse a Pan Am uniform and ID card? “I called up Pan Am, asked in accounting for the name of their uniform vendor in Manhattan. Then I went down there. They fitted me and then when it came time to pay, I said ‘No problem, I’ll write you a check.’ “
The fleece artist took advantage of the airlines reciprocal courtesy policy—that is, free flights for all pilots of all origins. “I flew millions of miles. I never actually flew on Pan Am. Instead, I flew on everyone else.” That way, there’d be no one from Pan Am in the cockpit who could challenge his authenticity.
The fact that the pilot’s uniform attracted female attention, especially from flight attendants, was just an unintended benefit: “I was young, but not stupid.”
Now nearing age 65, Abagnale still manages to crisscross the country by air, albeit this time legally. “I’ve got seven million frequent flyer miles on American, and another coupla million on Delta,” he laughs.
One classic con that didn’t make it into the movie, he says, is when he rented a bank guard’s uniform and stood at one airport’s bank drop for night deposits. “I put a sign up that said ‘drop box out of order.’ Nobody ever questioned how a box could be out of order. They just handed me their deposit bags.”
As the CEO of Abagnale and Associates, a secure documents consulting firm he operates from his home in Charleston, S.C., he now finds consolation in consulting for his former nemesis. “This year, I’m celebrating 36 years with the FBI. I’ve worked on Enron, I worked on WorldCom, I worked on Tyco and Arthur Andersen. What amazed me about these people in every instance was their greed. They’d get $50 million for doing nothing, they could have sat and gotten away with it, but then they’d want another $50 million.”
By way of example concerning his second (and legitimate) career, Abagnale relates this tale: Once asked to challenge a new ATM prototype, the master thief promptly took a tube of Super Glue and sealed the machine’s electronic door shut. When ATM users inserted their card and the door failed to open, the bank customers always assumed the machine was broken and hit the "cancel" button. After a while, Abagnale would stroll up to the “foolproof” ATM, break open the glued door slot and take the pile of withdrawn cash that was dutifully awaiting him.
These days, corporate customers appear to be lining up for his inventive designs and criminal insights, such companies as:
* Standard Register Corp. of Dayton: He designed unique watermark safety paper for the firm that’s used to guarantee the authenticity of blank car titles, prescription pads and birth certificates
*ADP: His design for a safety protected payroll check is issued more than 800 million times per year by thousands of corporations
* Sanford Pens: The ingenious Sanford Uni-ball 207 is claimed as the only safe pen in the world that can’t be altered by chemicals or ink solvents
* Audemars Piguet: He developed a patented anti-counterfeit technology employed by the luxury watchmaker.
“I certainly don’t write a lot of checks in today’s environment,” he says. “And I shred everything into confetti. I like to remove 99 percent of all risk in my life.”