'Catch Me If You Can' conman Frank Abagnale gives lecture at MU

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 | 11:51 p.m. CDT; updated 11:17 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 13, 2012
Frank Abagnale signs his book "Catch Me If You Can" at MU Bookstore on Wednesday afternoon. Fans of his book, movie and musical, "Catch Me If You Can," showed up to meet him.

COLUMBIA —  Chris Stacy held a copy of the book, “Catch Me If You Can,” as he waited in line to get a signature from its author and main character, Frank Abagnale Jr.

“In my life, I have a hard time not telling the truth,” said Stacy, a medical examiner and MU assistant professor of clinical pathology. “It’s interesting to learn about someone who was the opposite.”

Frank Abagnale Jr.'s Tips For Avoiding Fraud

During his speech at Jesse Auditorium on Wednesday night, the inspiration behind the movie "Catch Me If You Can" gave the audience his tips about avoiding fraud:

  • Use technology safely: Don't give too much information about yourself on Facebook. Just stating where and when you were born gives criminals the information they need.
  • Buy only micro-cut shredders: It's possible to reconstruct documents and credit cards run through standard shredders. Only a micro-cut shredder will make them impossible to reconstruct.
  • Don't write a lot of checks: Checks contain valuable information and can be easily forged.
  • Don't use a debit card: Credit cards are the safest form of payment because you build credit while the money you spend isn't yours. Credit card companies are a kind of buffer for fraud.

The book is an account of the conman who cashed over $2.5 million in fraudulent checks while impersonating a pilot, doctor and lawyer and was made famous by a movie of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

At the book signing, it was easy to see how Abagnale, with his grin and firm handshake, could convince anyone of nearly anything.

From the age of 16 to 21, Abagnale evaded enforcement agencies while assuming false identities and cashing fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries. All that changed when he was finally caught in France in 1970, served five years in prison, and — in another twist — ended up working for the FBI to help teach them fraud prevention.

He’s now one of the most respected authorities on subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents, according to his website.

At the MU Bookstore, Abagnale signed copies of two books he penned on his life and fraud prevention before he gave a speech Wednesday night in Jesse Auditorium as part of the Delta Gamma Foundation's Lectureship in Values and Ethics.

Throughout the presentation, he entertained students with anecdotes about his five years as a con artist, but ended by teaching the audience the morals he learned 36 years later after he left prison in an agreement to work for the FBI, met his wife and had a family.

“I never believed a piece of paper can excuse my actions,” said Abagnale, who turned down three presidential pardons and worked for the FBI 26 years longer than the terms of his agreement. “Only my actions can.”

Born in Bronxville, a suburb of New York City, in 1948, Abagnale was caught up in small crimes at a young age. When his dad bought him a car, he gave Abagnale a Mobile credit card that he used to rack up thousands in charges. He’d buy four tires from an auto store, for example, and convince the owner to buy back two of the tires for $100 just as a way to get cash.

“Oh, I did little, creative things,” Abagnale said with a grin.

When he was 16, his parents divorced after 22 years of marriage. Torn by having to choose whom to live with, he cried and ran right out of the courtroom into New York City with little cash.

"I needed to survive, and the only asset I had was that I looked older than I was," Abagnale said.

He altered his driver's license to say he was 27 years old and he would step into banks throughout the city and, without an account, convince them to cash fake checks. One day after spotting an airline crew, he had the idea to pose as a pilot, a job which received admiration and respect.

Posing as an employee who lost a uniform, he called the Pan American World Airways to get one. Eventually, Abagnale forged a PanAm identification card and learned through conversation enough about flying planes to hold his own while he rode jump seat on flights around the world. Where he landed, he cashed checks.

Abagnale said he never planned a thing in his con years, but took advantage of opportunities as they came.

“Had I been a little older at the time, I would’ve rationalized things, said 'No it’s impossible,' and talk myself out of it," he said. "But because I was so young, I had no fear of getting caught or facing consequences. I was very much an adolescent. But I always did know I would get caught."

The FBI eventually recovered $2 million of Abagnale's money from safety deposit boxes, and under no obligation, he later paid back another $500,000.

“People asked me, why didn’t you invest?" he said. "I was only 16 years old. It wasn’t about money, it was just about doing it all.”

Abagnale revealed that it wasn't all fun and games and said he cried every day in his hotel room. He said he never got to go to prom or a high school football game or have a relationship with someone his age.

“It was a very, very lonely life," he said. "I had no one to really talk to, and everyone I knew believed I was someone or something else."

Arrest was a lifted burden for Abagnale, but he said he only accepted the FBI agreement to get out of prison and make money. He only changed once he met Kelly, his wife and mother of his three sons, whom he met while working undercover for the FBI, he said. After the investigation was complete, he broke protocol and told her the truth, including his conman past.

“She had been dating me like six months, and suddenly I was telling her, 'This is not my real name, I’m not a social worker.' She goes, 'So you’re a government agent?' I said, 'Well, not by choice.'"

At the event Abagnale stressed the importance of family values. He talked about how his father was a role model for him, how he would never miss a night to kiss his four children and tell them he loved them.

"Though there are many fathers in the world, there are very few daddies," he said. "I strive every day to be a good dad."

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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