by Patrick Gustavson
Imagine constantly running from authority, knowing capture is inevitable, but having no fear at all. For six years, that was the life of Frank Abagnale, a notorious conman who traveled the world, forging checks and stealing identities.
Abagnale ran away from home at the age of 16, following the unexpected divorce of his parents.
“Back in the 1960s, a lot of people ran away from home, but they ended up in Haight-Asbury, the hippy scene, the drug scene. Well, I ended up on the streets of Manhattan at 16 years old,” Abagnale said.
Realizing he needed to “get creative” to make money, he forged his driver’s license to say that he was 26, not 16. Between 1964 and 1969, he posed as a pilot, physician and attorney, all while writing one fraudulent check after another.
When describing why he chose to live such a daring life, Abagnale said: “It started out as survival, then people were chasing me and it was: ‘how am I [going to] run from all these people that are chasing me?’ until the ultimate end, where it became almost a game, where I knew that in the end, they’d catch me, and I’d have to go to jail.”
Despite knowing he would eventually be caught, this did not derail him from continuing to live such a dangerous lifestyle.
“I truly believe that I got away with most of the things I did, that people think are so fantastic, was because in fact I was an adolescent. I had no fear in being caught. I had no sense of the consequences. I just did it,” Abagnale said.
After finally being caught, and spending time in prison in France and Sweden, he was deported back to the United States, where he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.
Abagnale’s break came after serving just five years of his sentence, when the FBI offered to take him out of prison, in exchange for him working for them for the remaining duration of his sentence. This was a no-brainer for him, saying: “I wasn’t a rehabilitated person. I looked at it as, ‘well, this is an opportunity.’ This was an opportunity for me to get out of prison, so I thought, ‘I’ll do that.’”
Little did he know, this moment would turn into an illustrious 40-year career working for the FBI as an advisor, working to investigate crimes involving fraud or scams.
He would go on to write a book, “Catch Me If You Can,” about his experiences. His story was so compelling that it was picked up by Steven Spielberg, who turned it into a film that would be nominated for an Academy Award. Abagnale has mixed thoughts about the film.
“[Generally] I would have preferred that a movie had not been made about my life. It hasn’t affected me much, but now people know who I am,” Abagnale said.
About three years ago, Abagnale aligned with AARP and their “Fraud Watch Network,” and now travels the country, telling his story and educating on how to avoid fraud such as identity theft and phishing.
“When AARP contacted me, they were trying to start this fraud watch network, to educate their members [and non-members] about not being victimized by all these scams going on,” Abagnale said.
Abagnale educates on how anything from debit cards, emails, “public wifi,” iPhones and software updates can contribute to scams.
What makes Abagnale the proudest in life is not his career accomplishments, but rather, his family.
“God blessed me with a wife, and she blessed me with three beautiful children,” Abagnale said.
His oldest son even followed in his footsteps, becoming an FBI agent, a position he has held for 12 years. Abagnale called this the proudest moment of his life.
“What I truly strive for in life is to be a good husband, a good father, and a good daddy,” Abagnale said.
Despite having to “live for a burden to [his] death,” he knows he has been incredibly fortunate in his life, saying: “We live in a country where you can get a second chance. I owe my country more than I could repay for the last 40 years.”