Con-Men in History: Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale is one of the most famous con-men of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most fascinating. During his very young and relatively short-lived life of crime, Abagnale assumed a reported eight false identities, including a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. The 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can, chronicled some of the highlights of Abagnale’s criminal history, but Frank’s post-incarceration success has given him just as much fame as the Hollywood biopic about his life.

Abagnale began his criminal career in his teen years, initializing theft schemes that sent his father into financial hardship. He left home at 16 and lied about his age and education in order to get higher-earning jobs. However,making an honest pay on inaccurate information did not suit Abagnale, and he began writing bad checks. When his initial check fraud began to catch up with him, he moved onto impersonating Pan Am pilots in order to get free flights and cash more bad checks that he fabricated himself.

Pan Am started to catch onto Abagnale, so he used his penchant for research to impersonate a doctor, eventually gaining the ability to practice medicine (through his fraud) in the state of Georgia. However, a child almost died as a result of Abagnale’s inexperience, and he moved on to the next scheme impersonating a lawyer.

Abagnale continued to move from false identity to false identity until he was arrested at the age of 21 in France, where he had done more than $300,000 in financial damage to local banks. He spent time in prison in Europe and the United States, where his expertise in fraud led to his parole at 26, contingent on his cooperation working with the FBI as a fraud consultant to catch criminals in his illegal niche. While working with the FBI, Abagnale started his own business consulting corporations and financial institutions on how to protect their business against criminals and fraud.

Abagnale’s knowledge and expertise have also illuminated a major problem with technological advancement. He says that cons are exponentially easier to pull off today than they were during his crimes in the 1960s, because technology and easy informational access require less time and effort from the criminal. Someone wanting to steal an identity only needs a few basic pieces of information and the right software application, a problem Abagnale attributes to the oversight of developers in considering how someone might use their products illegally before sending them to production.

If we learn anything from the wealth of knowledge that Abagnale has contributed to fighting fraud, it is that one must always have the criminal in mind, whether that person is creating the next biggest phone app or screening an employee. Thorough research and knowledge of how others conduct their cons have the ability to lower the number of fraud’s victims.

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