Life Lessons from Former Criminal and Now FBI Agent, Frank Abagnale Jr.

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I love a story of redemption and this is a good one! I was drawn into learning about this guy when I heard he was a former criminal turned FBI agent. What surprised me was how simply he now defines success.

My boss sent me the following Google Talk by Frank Abagnale Jr. It’s just over an hour long and while I have a lot of things vying for my attention these days this was an hour well spent. Actually, I’ve invested more than an hour as I’ve re-listened to things and wrote some stuff down for your reading pleasure here. You’re welcome 🙂

Frank talks at Google

Frank has some very poignant things to say when reflecting back on his life. We can all learn from him, both from a philosophical viewpoint as well as cybersecurity one. This is a long post so I’m breaking it down into four segments:

  1. Short bio of Frank Abagnale, Jr.
  2. Life lessons from a redeemed criminal
  3. Advice from an FBI agent on how to protect our identities and finances
  4. What’s to come in the cyber world

Feel free to skip ahead to the sections that interest you most.

Short Bio of Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Frank Abagnale Jr’s life is so fascinating that Steven Spielberg made a movie about it, Catch Me if You Can. I’ve not seen it…yet.

Currently, Frank works as an FBI agent dealing now mostly with cybercrime and identity theft.

Early on, Frank was raised just north of New York City and was one of 4 children. He was educated at a Catholic school and grew up with a loving father and mother. Frank says his father was deserving of being called Dad. His Dad never missed a night of coming into his and his sibling’s bedrooms to kiss them goodnight and tell them he loved them.

When Frank was 16, he was taken to court to surprisingly find out his parents were divorcing. A judge asked Frank to choose one parent to live with and apparently flight or fight kicked in and Frank ran away. Frank would never see his father again and would not see his mother for another 7 years.

A lot of his future criminal decisions were based off a need to survive and were “successful” due to a young fearless mentality.

Crimes Committed:

  • Altered one digit on his ID card to appear 10 years older than he was in order to make more money
  • Wrote checks that initially were backed by funds but as the money ran out, he kept on writing checks that bounced
  • Posed as a PanAm pilot and flew more than a million miles for free around the world
  • Impersonated a doctor in a Georgia hospital
  • Took and passed the bar exam in Lousiana and worked for the attorney general practicing law

No one ever questioned his credentials as a doctor or lawyer and he ultimately quit these positions on his own. Frank said, “like any criminal, sooner or later you get caught. I was no exception to that rule.” I also love this quote, “the law sometimes sleeps but the law never dies.”

Frank was arrested at the age 21 in France for a Swedish warrant. However, when France discovered he had written bad checks all over their country, they sentenced him to a French prison. Upon release, he was extradited to Sweeden, tried in a court of law, and sentenced to a Swedish penitentiary.

Eventually, US Federal authorities took custody of him and he was sentenced to another 12 years in a United States federal prison. After 4 years of that sentence, when he was 26, the government offered to take him out of prison in exchange for working with an agency of the federal government for the remainder of his sentence.  Forty-two years later, Frank is still working for the FBI.

Life Lessons From a Redeemed Criminal

He fooled a lot of people for years. He was so crafty that the federal government offered him a job. I was initially drawn into his story by these facts, but what really blew me away is his profound reflections years later. Many people tell him that he’s brilliant and/or a genius to which he replies, he was neither. He says he was just a child at the age of 16 and had he been either, brilliant or genius, he would’ve not found it necessary to break the law to survive.

He believes all children need a father and a mother and are entitled to such. Divorce is a very devastating thing for a child to endure. For Frank, being asked by a judge to choose one parent over the other was too much and so he fled.

Looking back on his early years, he always sees what he did as immoral and illegal. He lives with this every day of his life.

Frank considers himself very fortunate to be in a country where everyone gets a second chance. He feels indebted to his country and that is why he is still an FBI agent 30-some years after the federal court order expired. Frank has received three pardons from presidents which he has declined because he doesn’t believe a piece of paper will excuse his behavior. He says, only his actions will excuse his former behavior. Wow!

Frank’s redemption also comes from the love of a woman and the respect of his three boys. Frank credits God with giving him his wife and his wife with giving him 3 beautiful children.

Are your father and mother still alive? His advice is to go hug them and tell them how much you love them.

Frank pontificates about what being a real man is and what it’s not. It’s not about accomplishments, money, achievements, degrees, skills, professions or positions. A real man loves his wife and is faithful to her. A real man, next to God and his country, puts his wife and children as the most important thing. Wow again!

I don’t know about you but I’m incredibly blessed to read/hear about this utterly beautifully complicated life. I’m reminded that the real treasure is found in our family, our loved ones. While I don’t have a husband or kids, I do have parents, siblings, a niece, a nephew and friends that I consider family. I cherish them all.

Advice From An FBI Agent on Identity/Financial Protection

Technology breeds crime and Frank says it’s even easier today to get away with what he did years ago.  That’s why the FBI is continually making counter technology to combat criminals. I was so glad someone in the Google audience asked the following question, “Is there anything we can do as citizens to protect ourselves or is it a lost cause?”

Frank has some really practical and actionable advice (I love clearly defined action steps BTW).

Breaches

Every single breach occurs because someone in the company did something they weren’t supposed to do or didn’t do something they were supposed to do. “Hackers do not cause breaches, people do.” Criminals are just waiting for a window of opportunity.

The stealing of credit cards has a very short life. Criminals have to get rid of them quickly.

But, when one’s identity is stolen it’s a different story. You cannot change your name, your social security number, or your date of birth. So the hackers warehouse that data for 2-3 years and we won’t see it surface until then. Buying only one year of a credit monitoring service is useless. There are only two things you can do if you are a victim of a breach:

  1. Freeze your credit
  2. Monitor your credit continually

Frank has testified before Congress that they need to put federal a law across all 50 states that freezing and unfreezing of credit can be done at any time for free.  To the second point, Frank actually pays ~$12 a month for credit report monitoring and has been doing so since 1992. While he says he can monitor it on his own, having this service gives him the ability to pull up his credit any day with a few keystrokes as reported by the three main reporting agencies. Additionally, he receives the extra value of someone else monitoring it and notifying him in real time if anyone tries to use his SSN. He believes this service is of value and worth the fee.

Debit Cards Bad/Credit Cards Good

Additionally, he doesn’t own a debit card. His children don’t own debit cards. His actual statement is that debit cards are the “worst financial tool given to the American consumer.” He came to this conclusion by asking himself how he could remove 99.9% of his personal liability.

He pays for everything with the safest form of payment on earth…a credit card. That statement should make everyone in the world a travel hacking very happy!! Frank said he uses creditor’s money to buy everything, keeps his money hidden in a money market account and builds his credit by paying off the credit cards. As most of us know, if someone gets our credit card and charges an exorbitant amount, by federal law we have no liability.

I jumped on board and will add that I always recommend paying off your credit cards in full and on time every month.

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What’s to Come in the Cyber World?

Frank knows a thing or two here as he writes about crimes in the future. The good news is that we will be doing away with passwords in the next few years. There’s a technology company called Trusona  (stands for true persona) that created technology for the CIA. It’s now is being brought to the commercial world. Basically, this technology allows an agent to send data back from the field on their iPhone and Langley, VA is able to verify with 100% accuracy who sent it. Microsoft gave Trusona ten million dollars to develop it.  Check out the videos on Trusona’s website!!

The bad news is we may see cyber get very dark. Currently, we have the ability to turn someone’s pacemaker off but we have to be within 35 feet to do it. The FBI tests these devices at Quantico all the time. Frank believes that in five years, we will be able to do this from 5,000 miles away. Protecting electrical grids will continue to become increasingly important.

We all have technology inside our homes. The unintended consequence is that they are access points which can be used against us. Something to think about before purchasing the latest gadget, yes?

My Closing Thoughts

I hope you found this inspiring and of value. I sure did. Frank was very clear on the action steps we can take, both to have more joy and safety in our lives. To sum them up:

  1. Hug your parents and tell them how much you love them.
  2. Next to God and your country, make your family the most important thing in your life.
  3. Cancel your debit card.
  4. Use the safest form of payment for everything – credit cards. Additional words of wisdom from me – pay off the balance in full each and every month 🙂
  5. If you are a victim of a breach, freeze your credit.
  6. Monitor your credit frequently and perhaps pay for a credit monitoring service.

Closing Words From Mr. Abagnale

“If you believe you are good at what you do and you strive to be good at what you do, you don’t need to worry about what other people think. You need to be able to understand that you have your own confidence and that you can do whatever it is you are required to do. And other people will see that confidence in you. The minute you start doubting yourself, other people will see that you’re doubting yourself and that becomes a weakness in your personality. You always want to be confident in everything that you do.”

4 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Former Criminal and Now FBI Agent, Frank Abagnale Jr.”

  1. Oh my gosh, you have to watch it. It is one of my favorite movies of all time. I was like 12 when it came out, and I loved it so much my parents bought it for me for Christmas. Leonardo Dicaprio is PERFECT as Frank and does such a great job!

    I love that you shared this with us!

    1. I am so glad you liked this post! A colleague lent me the movie so now I’ll have to watch it; however, I loved hearing the story right from his mouth. Frank did say that Leonardo did a great job 🙂

  2. I love love love the movie! And my husband showed me this video, this guy has an amazing story. Love your article too!

    1. Thanks, Anna!! A colleague just lent me the movie after he learned of the topic of my article. I am watching it tonight!

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