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In Person – A Word With Frank Abagnale

The master forger became famous through the filming of his life story in the Hollywood blockbuster “Catch me if you can

By Dina Spahi

Leonardo DiCaprio portraits Frank Abagnale in the Hollywood movie “Catch me if you can“

Every now and then, a movie is released with a protagonist so fascinating that we wish we knew what became of them after the credits roll. Such is the case with the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent chasing him around the world.

Based on a book written by Mr Abagnale himself, the storyline loosely chronicles five years of his life as perhaps one of the world’s best imposters, successfully pretending to be a pilot, a doctor, a professor and even assistant attorney general for the state of Louisiana. The borrowed personas were only half the story, as the then-teenager managed to scam millions from banks and institutions by forging checks and outsmarting security measures that weren’t foolproof enough for a man who looks at a problem and always seems to a find solution.

But that was then, with ‘then’ being a remarkably short period of his life almost 50 years ago, when he embarked on his adventures and tried to escape justice at the tender age of 16, eventually getting caught at 21 by a persistent FBI agent. The story most of us know, based on his bestselling book, which was adapted into a film as well as a play on Broadway, concludes with the young Mr Abagnale spending a few years in prison. The end. Except it isn’t.

I didn’t make this film about Frank Abagnale because of what he did… but because of what he’s done with his life the past 30 years.

Steven Spielberg

The epilogue, as it turns out, is far more interesting. It’s a story of second chances, of redemption, of making amends, of living the best life one can. After the credits rolled, Mr Abagnale was contacted by the FBI who, ironically, realised that his ability to circumvent a system was exactly what the agency needed. And so he embarked on a new journey as a consultant helping the FBI as well as Fortune 500 companies, banks and institutions to develop document security products and fraud prevention programs in order to make sure that the crimes he managed to commit would never happen again. His charm, too, remains that of the confident young man who sweet-talked his way into unlikely scenarios. And it’s that charm and ability to put people at ease, along with his experience and insights, that make him a sought-after public speaker until this day. In addition to “Catch Me if You Can”, he’s also authored three books on white collar crime and identity theft: “Stealing Your Life”, “The Art of the Steal” and “The Real U Guide to Identity Theft”. But what about the FBI agent played by Tom Hanks? The two became friends.

Bestselling author, sought-after lecturer and highly respected consultant: that’s what Frank Abagnale is today and how he’d like to be perceived. And so he should. That and the accolades of being a husband, father and grandfather is what matters to him the most. In a rare interview, On Location spoke to Mr Abagnale about his remarkable journey and how he ended up being exactly where he wanted to be…

One of the most famous scenes from the Hollywood movie “Catch me if you can”: Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale in his identity as a pilot

How would you describe yourself and your life in one sentence?  

The only important thing about myself is that I’m a good husband, married to my one and only wife for over 41 years, a great father to three sons and a loving grandfather to five grandchildren.

You’ve had such an interesting life and accomplished so much since your notorious teenage years. You’re an author, inspirational speaker, security expert, in the spotlight… What would you like to turn your attention to next?

I’d like to rid the world of passwords to help prevent identity theft on a global scale. I’m an advisor to a technology company called Trusona (www.trusona.com). I took on this project five years ago, because I strongly believe that passwords are for treehouses. The truth is, passwords are a 1964 technology that was introduced when I was 16. It’s truly unbelievable that we’re still using them in 2018. Trusona allows us to eliminate the necessity for passwords and still be able to identify an individual with absolute accuracy on their phone, laptop or PC. My hope is that my grandchildren, who are still very young, will one day be able to complete a transaction without having to provide personal information about themselves.

Being a person who keeps looking at things from a different angle (a helpful skill in security!), how do you switch off? If at all, do certain hobbies help?

I work and travel extremely hard five days a week, but at weekends, I spend as much time as I can with my wife, helping her with chores, grocery shopping and spending a lot of time on our boat.

Why do you think your story resonates so strongly with people, even after all these years?

I truly believe that people find my story a great story of redemption. This is actually why Steven Spielberg made the movie. Most likely, my story still resonates with people because I did what I did when I was a teenager, served my time in prison, paid back all the money and have dedicated more than 40 years of my life preventing individuals, corporations, governments and financial institutions from falling victim to fraud.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg, Frank Abagnale & Tom Hanks (from the left) at the film premiere of the Hollywood movie “Catch me if you can

When you turned your life around, you had people who supported you and saw how your talents could be used for good. Do you think this kind of forgiveness and help is still prevalent today?

I hope so. I wasn’t “born again”, I didn’t “see the light” and prison didn’t rehabilitate me. I met an amazing young lady 42 years ago, who believed in me, trusted me, saw the good in me and became my wife against her parents’ will. She gave me three beautiful children, a wonderful family and turned my life around. I truly believe that everyone needs someone to believe in them, care about them and support them. Of course, 42 years on and for the rest of my life, there will always be people who judge me only for what I did as a teenager.

The next generation: Mainly because of your charm and way of interacting with people, you managed to do the seemingly impossible and you continue to do that today in your work. How do you see human interaction changing with technology? 

Sadly, criminals are able to steal from and defraud individuals, elderly people and businesses because technology eliminates emotions. In the past, a fraudster may have felt compassion or sympathy for an individual they were about to con because their interaction was face to face. Nowadays, fraud can be committed from thousands of miles away. A fraudster may never see their victim and their victim may never see them. Consequently, emotions, compassion and feelings for another individual are becoming a thing of the past.

What advice would you give your children and younger generations with regard to identity theft, never giving up and helping others?

I keep telling young people that life’s not short. Life is long, very long. I may, God willing, live until my 90s. My children and grandchildren may live to over 100. When you make a mistake in life, when you mistreat someone, when you deceive someone, when you cheat on someone, it may not bother you that very moment, but believe me, it will come back to haunt you for the rest of your life. It becomes a burden that you reflect on often and you wish you could live your life all over again. Think before you act. Think about the people your actions may hurt. 

Fast Five

1.Having a packed speaking schedule, how do manage to unwind?
Being with family and boating.

2.Being an inspirational speaker, who inspires you?
My family.

3.When you aren’t writing your own bestsellers, what books/authors do you enjoy reading?
I like mysteries and I’m a big Agatha Christie fan.

4.On your many travels, what was your favourite destination?
Italy… I find it the most relaxing place in the world. I go there on holiday every year.

5.And which places would you still like to explore?
More of Italy.

To learn more about how Mr Abagnale’s expertise has helped shape security systems, we recommend taking a look at his great website www.abagnale.com