Frank Abagnale is a former con artist, bestselling author of Catch Me If You Can, and now one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subjects of fraud, forgery, and cyber security, Frank Abagnale knows how scammers work. His latest book, Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists, is out now. [And if you’re curious about where we stand on Frank’s credibility in light of Alan C. Logan’s recently published book The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can? please note our disclaimer below!]
What We Discuss with Frank Abagnale:
- How the constant rush to get untested new technology on the market for the appeasement of investors makes us all vulnerable to security breaches.
- Why Frank believes it’s much easier to pull off scams these days than it was 50 years ago in his fraudulent heyday.
- Why, according to Frank, there is no technology that can defeat social engineering, and there never will be — not even AI.
- Why Frank says that passwords are for treehouses, and what he envisions as a more foolproof way to protect our data from would-be scammers.
- The three traits of a good con man, and the five simple steps you can take to scam-proof your life.
- And much more…
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Disclaimer: At the time this interview was conducted, the story Frank Abagnale presents here was an account of youthful indiscretions and clever shenanigans widely accepted as truthful — for decades — by numerous individuals, law enforcement agencies, and film and television studios with deeper pockets for funding BS detection than The Jordan Harbinger Show. Since then, the entire tale has been more fully scrutinized and called into question by author Alan C. Logan in his book The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can.
Even now, can we say for certain who’s telling the truest version of Frank Abagnale’s story? We cannot. But can we urge you, the discerning listener, to keep an open mind as we’re riveted by ripping yarns that may be more fiction than fact as spun by someone who confesses to being a master con artist? Indeed! We hope you enjoy this episode as a source of entertainment rather than a Smithsonian-curated history text.
Plenty of films — from The Blair Witch Project to Fargo — prefix their opening scenes with some variation of the words “inspired by a true story” in spite of being 100 percent fictitious. And if you’ve ever seen the Oscar-nominated 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, you may have waved this claim away and suspended your disbelief for the next 141 minutes to enjoy a darned good movie about a teenager (Leonardo DiCaprio) who impersonates airline pilots to fly around the world, swindle banks, and pick up women just steps ahead of the FBI agent (Tom Hanks) tasked to subdue him for his crimes.
But as it happens, this “true story of a real fake” claims to be factual [see disclaimer above]. Well, mostly. On this episode, we talk to Frank Abagnale who, from age 16 to 21, led the FBI along a trail of scams, frauds, forgeries, and impersonations before he was caught and then hired to explain exactly how he pulled it all off. Now he’s a security consultant and author of several books — including Catch Me If You Can, upon which the movie was based, and his latest, Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
Please note that some of the links on this page (books, movies, music, etc.) lead to affiliate programs for which The Jordan Harbinger Show receives compensation. It’s just one of the ways we keep the lights on around here. Thank you for your support!
THANKS, FRANK ABAGNALE!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artists by Frank Abagnale
- Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding
- Catch Me If You Can (Film)
- The Art of the Steal: How to Protect Yourself and Your Business from Fraud, America’s #1 Crime by Frank W. Abagnale
- Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan by Frank W. Abagnale
- Abagnale & Associates
- Chase Hughes | Why Authority Is More Influential than Skill, TJHS 102
- “Are You My Deadhead?” Catch Me If You Can, Movieclips
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
- Ori Eisen, Trusona
- Elicitation, The Social Engineering Framework
- Secret Service Agent, Catch Me If You Can, Movieclips
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- What Is the MICR Line on a Check? Sapling
- Watson & Me “Frank Abagnale” Commercial, IBM
- Joseph Shea (FBI agent), Wikipedia
- National Do Not Call Registry
Transcript for Frank Abagnale | Scam Me If You Can (Episode 1)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I’m Jordan Harbinger. As always, I’m here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world’s most brilliant and interesting people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you.
[00:00:20] Today, it’s fair to say I’ve been waiting 10 years for this interview. Frank W. Abagnale is a security and anti-fraud consultant for over 50 years now. He at one point was one of the world’s most famous con men starting at age 16. He was caught when he was 21. He traveled the world forging, printing, what have you, $2.5 million more than that in checks. He impersonated at Pan Am copilot, which allowed him to travel for free. He also impersonated a Harvard lawyer, a resident doctor at a local hospital, a Columbia educated professor, and the FBI finally caught up with him in France and they asked if he’d basically come and worked for them because he had figured out so many holes in so many systems. He actually today designs many of the secure checks banks and companies use today. And today, Jason, we’ve got some amazing stories. I mean we’re going to hear all about him impersonating pilots, how that worked, how the check fraud game worked, how he impersonated a doctor, how he ended up impersonating a lawyer and working at the district attorney’s office —
Jason DeFillippo: [00:01:24] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:25] No less. This guy, he is full of stories. He’s been fighting crime and fraud for five decades now almost. This is just one of the most amazing episodes that I’ve had recently. It’s really a joy to have Frank W. Abagnale here today.
[00:01:44] If you want to know how we manage the book, all these great people and manage relationships, well we use systems, we use tiny habits. Check out our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course and by the way, most of the guests here on the show actually subscribed to the course and the newsletter. Come join us, you’ll be in great company, and here is Frank W. Abagnale.[00:02:8] Frank, thank you very much for taking the time. This is exciting and it’s going to be fun. Catch Me If You Can is one of my favorite movies. Of course, I read the book multiple times. I’m just a big fan of that. I think, for a lot of folks, myself included, there are some kids that grow up dreaming of being rock stars. There are some kids that grow up dreaming of being an athlete. There are other kids that didn’t have a chance in all that and then got into a lot of trouble as a teenager and then went, “Oh, am I going to be in prison later? And then I saw the movie and I went, ‘Okay, good. I can live vicariously through Frank Abagnale’s story and then not go to prison in France with no lights and no toilet.’ ”
Frank Abagnale: [00:02:55] That’s true and I’ve had a lot of young people telling me that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:57] In a way you were a millionaire before you were 21 and you flew planes as a pilot but you couldn’t fly. The first question that comes to mind with the whole pilot scam is did you not look too young? I mean most pilots are like 40 something.
Frank Abagnale: [00:03:11] No, actually, that was the one advantage I had. I had a little gray hair. I always looked a little older and I went to a Catholic school and every week we had to go to mass. We had to dress in a suit, and my friends always used to say, “You look more like a teacher than a student,” so I had that going for me. But one thing that I noticed is that when I put that pilot’s uniform on, no one questioned that I look too young to be a pilot. But if I had met you in a restaurant or a bar and I was just in casual clothes and you said, “What do you do? And I said, “I fly for Pan Am.” You just said, “You look a little young to be a pilot.” It’s amazing that the uniform was so powerful. People just saw the uniform. That’s all they saw.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:55] That’s funny. Yeah, that makes sense. There’s a psychological principle there that I think a lot of people use even now. I mean, extrapolating this to the work you’re currently doing with your new book, there are people that say, “Oh, I’m calling from the IRS,” or “I’m calling from the police station,” and they sound really official and there’s background noise or they’ll have a sound effect, that to you or me or somebody else is clearly a sound effect, but to somebody who’s 65 and doesn’t deal with the police or law enforcement, they go, “Oh, this person must be at the police station because I heard of fake siren in the background,” or something along those lines.
Frank Abagnale: [00:04:32] It’s absolutely convincing. First of all, the caller ID is manipulated to say it’s the police department. So, they believe it is when they pick up the phone, then they hold that background noise in the background. That’s a boiler room, so they’re able to switch calls to different people as if they were transferring a call to a detective or somebody in another department. Yes, it sounds very real and to people who are not aware of the scam or what’s going on, it’s very easy to fall for it
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:59] In a way that’s the 2019 Pan Am pilot uniform, the look as if, the number’s spoof, the background noise, or anything like that. I know that there’s a lot of concepts that you can teach us to illustrate these concepts throughout the show here. I thought it was interesting, your first victim, if you will, was actually your own father. This belies a little bit of your story here because I think a lot of hardcore con man, where you go this is despicable. They go into this looking for really easy marks, in old people and innocent people. But to con your own dad, either you’re the worst teenager in the world or you’re doing this for shits and giggles, for laughs or for chicks.
Frank Abagnale: [00:05:45] I never looked at it as about conning my dad. It was all about girls and I was this young kid who wanted to have the means to meet these girls. I just came up with this idea but it was so complicit with the people who helped me. I would literally go to a gas station and tell the guy, “I’ll take these four tires.” He’d bring them off the rack, I’d give him the credit card, he’d get approval. Then he’d come back and I’d say to him, “You know, I don’t really want these tires, but I’ll tell you what to do out. I’ll sell them to you for $100.” So, you’ll basically get the money from the credit card company, but you’ll make a profit and you keep the tires and every single person, no matter what gas station I went to or service repair, absolutely I’ll do that. It was more about me just getting money. I wasn’t thinking about my father getting stuck with the bill or having to pay the bill. I was really convincing anybody or conning anybody, I felt I was conning to the gas station to give me that money.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:43] I can see that. At that time, you’re a kid, you’re not really thinking that far ahead. This is the opposite though in many ways of how you ran your scams later on. It seems like your vision got a bigger picture in longer term as you got a little bit more developed. I would say as you got older, but this is all happening when you’re still a teenager, so I don’t know if that’s the right word, older.
Frank Abagnale: [00:07:05] Well everything happened between 16 and 21 and people say, you know, you were brilliant. I wasn’t brilliant. I was just a kid. But being an adolescent, I had no fear of being caught. I had no fear of consequences. Everything goes thing that I did, I didn’t premeditate or it would’ve never happened if I would have rationalized it and said that won’t work. I went into bank cashing checks, but it was very difficult to convince them to cash a check for me. Then I was walking down the street and I saw this airline crew and I thought to myself, “Boy, if I had this uniform, and then I walked in the bank as this pilot, they’re more likely to cash the check from me.” And it was like night and day. I mean, the uniform was so powerful. That’s all they saw. The check looked stupid, but they saw the uniform and I was this pilot. I quickly learned very fast that, that was a way to be able to do that. That was just a mechanism, but if I had really thought it out, it probably wouldn’t happen. I didn’t sit in front of a bank and think to myself I’m going to go in and cash this check. If they say this, I’ll do this. If they do that, I’ll do this. I just went in and did it. I think had I been a little older, 25, 26 started doing these things, I would have rationalized — you can’t get away with it; it’ll never work. I think because I was so young is what made me do it. It started out more as survival. How am I going to survive? Then it became people are chasing me and how am I going to stay ahead of the people chasing me? and then towards the end of it, it started to become more of a game until I eventually stopped knowing that they would eventually catch up with me.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:43] I think that learning this as a kid, you mentioned going to bars and business dealings with your dad that plus the lack of adult supervision. Would you say that was a kind of magic combination for this? Because a lot of kids don’t even think about doing this. You must have come up with the idea by seeing adults wheeling and dealing.
Frank Abagnale: [00:09:03] Seeing adults and to be absolutely honest, my parents were going through that divorce and I was very upset about that. I was this kid who thought if I got in trouble that might get my parents back together again. I was going through a lot of those things that adolescents, unfortunately, go through when their parents are going through a divorce. Like you said, yes, then it becomes a lack of supervision because they’re tied up in their own problems. They’re not paying attention to their children and the children are trying to get their attention. Though I never wanted to use my parents’ divorce as a crutch — I take total responsibility for what I did. I paid my debt for it — but absolutely that was the things that were on my mind when I was doing it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:46] You’ve mentioned in the book that you put on the uniform, I’m paraphrasing here, but you put on the uniform to feel better about yourself in some ways or to feel important. How much of all of these were done in the beginning? Like you said later they were chasing you, but in the beginning, how much was done to prove to yourself to prove to others — I’m smart, I value, I can do this? I’m just wondering because I feel that’s a very teenage boy thing to do.
Frank Abagnale: [00:10:12] Yeah. I think that because I was so young, I felt there was anything I could do. I wasn’t afraid of trying something. Again, I think the uniform started out more as to me as a mechanism to be able to go in and cash these checks. But then when I saw the respect, the uniform got that obviously was a very good feeling and then I was able to meet girls and everything because I was this young guy who was a pilot in a uniform. You know, all those things just added to it. But they didn’t start out with me thinking that, it started out with me just saying this is a good mechanism to go in the bank and cash your check.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:48] Yeah, the old slippery slope, right? I suppose.
Frank Abagnale: [00:10:50] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:51] The momentum took on a life of its own.
Frank Abagnale: [00:10:54] There’s a scene in the movie that Steven Spielberg had which is so true, and actually I did walk up to a TWA counter. I was in a uniform. I was getting ready to purchase a ticket and she said to me, “Are you buying or riding?” I said, “I beg your pardon?” “Are you riding the plane or you’re buying the ticket? You want to be in the jump seat?” I said, “The jump seat?” “Yeah. I’ll give you a pass. Just go on the jump seat.” Well, I learned everything as I went. I had no idea you could do this. So then, I started riding around on planes in the jump seat.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:26] Right, that’s where you walk up to the counter. Of course, I re-watched the movie recently. You walk up to the counter, she goes, “Are you my deadhead to Miami?” And Leonardo DiCaprio goes, “Uh, what?” Right? Because he’d never heard that before.
Frank Abagnale: [00:11:39] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:40] The whole act like you belong there and walk right in advice, it sounds to some people, “Okay, that’s cliché, it’s antiquated, it’s old. I’m never going to fall for that.” I think people who think that way, that’s the type of thinking that makes you a good victim or a good mark because they think I’m immune to this. This doesn’t work anymore because everyone’s heard of this trick. Do you agree with that?
Frank Abagnale: [00:12:04] You are absolutely 100% correct. People are also basically very naive. I find that a lot of young people are not very resourceful. If I took them to New York and took away their iPhones, they couldn’t find their way back to Virginia. It’s just amazing to me today. That’s why I tell people all the time that I’m amazed at what I did 50 years ago is thousands of times easier to do today due to technology. The fact that you can do it from thousands of miles away. The fact that nobody ever needs to actually see you. You don’t actually see your victims. All emotion goes away, all conscience goes away, all guilt goes away. So, it’s actually much easier to do today than when I did it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:49] That’s an interesting point and I want to get to some of this in a little bit that’s easier now because I think that surprises a lot of people. The whole act like you belong there. This is hardwired biology, right? It’s not a matter of wearing a suit and having a name tag. I think fighting hardwired biology, the tribalism that exists in humans, where we see the guy in the pilot’s uniform, we’re wired to think that something we see is actually true or actually there and fighting that hardwired biology takes a lot of vigilance. I think it takes a lot of training — some of what you provide — but people don’t naturally have this. I don’t look at a pilot who’s standing in an airport lobby and go, that could be a fake pilot. The chances are slim, but he could be a fake pilot. I would never think that because I’m not trained to think that there’s a fake pilot walking through the airport, trying to scam flights or get through security. It doesn’t make any sense.
Frank Abagnale: [00:13:38] But even today I do that. I look at the buttons on the uniform to make sure the buttons are the actual real buttons. I look at the wings a person has. I always used to save traveling with my wife that I could point to a corner and go, “You see that guy over there? He’s a policeman, or you see these guys over there, they’re getting ready to sell drugs.” And she would sit there and go, “How do you know that?” Or you know, I’d see some guys standing on the corner and say, “That’s a cop,” and she’d go, “No, he’s just a guy in a suit.” “No, he’s got a pair of handcuffs on his tie, the shoes he’s wearing.” These were just things a part of being extremely observant that I learned at a very young age and that helped me through all of that and helps me in my career later.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:22] That definitely makes sense. I mean being observant is one of the…You have this sort of three pillars that we can go over later in the show of a good con man and observant, I believe was one of those pillars as well.
Frank Abagnale: [00:14:32] Absolutely.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:33] The observance that you have…When you look and you say that’s a cop, do you immediately go because he has the handcuffs or do you say, actually he’s a cop, let me now think of why I know that? Is it a kind of instant recognition that you then later are able to pinpoint why? Or are you looking at things and you find slowly that he’s a cop? Does that question make sense?
Frank Abagnale: [00:14:56] Yes, and it’s more of an instant recognition. I see it and I know it. I don’t question myself — how do you know it, why did you come to that conclusion — I just say to myself I know it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:07] Did you ever read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell? He talks about this with the fake Greek art statue.
Frank Abagnale: [00:15:12] I’ve heard about it. I’ve never read the book.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:14] For those of you listening that haven’t also read this book, there’s a Greek statue and it goes to all these experts and they all say it’s real and this museum curator or this other expert, he goes, “It’s fake,” and they say, “How do you know?” And years go by and everyone’s studying this and they say, “You’re crazy. It’s real. We authenticated it. We drilled holes in it and all this stuff.” And it turned out later on he goes, “I got it. The fingernails are wrong.” The fingernails are wrong, they’re wrong, whatever I can’t remember the exact reason. And then they basically said, “All right, let’s look at the fingernails,” and they went, “You’re right, there’s something weird about these fingernails.” And I believe they drilled a hole, clean through the thing, and then spent thousands of dollars carbon dating it, and they went, “Yep, this is fake. Holy crap.” And he knew it right away. I mean, within five minutes he went, this is fake. I just can’t figure out why it took him years to actually figure out the reason that he knew, but he knew his brain, his subconscious mind knew immediately.
Frank Abagnale: [00:16:10] Yeah. If I can take a minute to share a story with you. I have been teaching at the FBI Academy for four decades. I’ve taught two generations of FBI agents, and I basically teach them to think out of the box and how not to look at everything black and white. But several years ago, an ATM company came to me in my office and showed me a picture of a new ATM machine and asked me if they could put that machine in my office and if I could keep a couple of weeks, keep it and test it and find some ways that I would defeat it. I looked at the picture and I said to the guy, “Well, I can tell you right now, I can defeat it.” He said, “What? How can you say that? We just spent millions of dollars on research and development for this.” I said, “Well, do you have one of these machines somewhere?” “Well, yeah, in the, in the Kentucky Airport in Louisville.” I said, “Well, I recommend that we meet there and let me show you how you can defeat this machine.” “Well, can it be tomorrow?” I said, “Well, not tomorrow, but in a couple of weeks.” So I showed up there and the guy says to me when I get off the plane, “Where’s your tools?” I said, “I don’t have any tools. Did you bring me a card and a number so I can access your machine?” “Yes,” so we walked over and there were three ATM machines there and I basically, there’s was a test beta machine that had it set up and working. I stuck the card in, asked for $20, did the pin number, and it dropped into a well and when the door opened inward, I put my hand in there and took out the 20, there was a green light, so I knew my hand was in there. When the light connected back, I knew I’d remove my hand. There was a two-second delay and it closed. So, I put it back in, I asked for another $20 but this time out of my pocket I took some super glue and put it around the door and then the doors shut. Then I said, “Let’s go sit over here.” People came up, they put their card in, $100, $50 — the money dropped, the door wouldn’t open. So, people pressed cancel. They got their card back and they went to another ATM machine. After a few people, we walked up, I put the card back in $20, I popped the door and all the cash came out. I said, “Get rid of this door and that’s why ATMs now, the money just comes out straight. There is no door.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:16] Yeah. They used to have that big metal rotating…Whatever they call it, like a cylinder in there. I remember thinking, “Man, you better not get your hand caught in there.” And the designer went, “We’re not going to get any hands caught in there because we just freeze the door when there’s an object in the way.” Oops.
Frank Abagnale: [00:18:32] You know, I’ve spent a lot of my career working with technology companies and I think one of the best explanations was from a gentleman named Ori Eisen who is the CEO of a company called Trusona, and I’ve been working with them for five years during the world of passwords. But he was once asked, “Why do you work with Frank Abagnale and I know he’s advised you for 20 years on different technologies you develop.” He said, “Because I’m not a criminal, I cannot think like Frank. I can develop the best technology in the world, but only Frank knows how to beat it.” He said, “My relationship with Frank is that we play chess together. I tell him I did this and then he comes in and says, ‘Well, you’re not going to defeat that by doing this.’ Then I go back and I’ve fixed that and he comes back, ‘Well that’s good, but you could still do this.’ Until he tells me that it’s pretty sound, I don’t bring it to the market, but I can’t think like he thinks only he can think the way he thinks.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:25] See that’s the real hacker mindset. Can people think hacker, they think computer hacker. Computer hackers are great at breaking into systems and securing systems, but this goes beyond coding and things like that. This is social engineering. This is real hacking. I’ve talked about this before on the show. When I was a kid, I’ve gotten quite a loaded trouble doing similar things with phone systems. I remember the phone company had to change, among other things, had to change one of their systems because you could get calling cards by having a number dial back to the phone and it would say, “Great, we’re just going to charge, here’s your secret pin number. We charge all the calls back to this phone number now.” And I thought, “Well, I could probably call this number from a payphone because payphones have phone numbers.” And so I did that and then, of course, you know, you’re making all these calls to Japan and then the phone company gets the bill and they said, “Who’s not paying the bill for 65142?. Oh wait, that’s one of our payphones at a drug store down the road. We’ve got to pay this bill.” And you know, all little things like that, when you’re thinking about designing systems that are convenient and useful, very rarely are you also thinking, what would somebody who has all day to think about how to ruin this for everyone and steal from it. Thinking those aren’t, those are not necessarily the same people. Those aren’t the same designers.
Frank Abagnale: [00:20:46] You are so correct with that. We look at all of the majority of the technology that comes out today, they’re so quick about getting it to market for return on investment. The marketing people want to get it out. So you’ll have a device in your house you talk to and you ask it what time of day it is, what’s on TV, order me this from the internet. Obviously, it’s voice-activated, so with a little twitch, you can then listen to anything anybody says in their house. They develop these technologies without ever going to the final step and saying, now how would someone misuse this, and let’s block that from ever occurring. They’d never do that. So consequently, we had all this technology out there and it’s very simple to manipulate, whether it’s the Samsung TV or your remote control or whether it’s a frigerator in your house that tells you how much milk in it. All those are just access points for hackers.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:38] We’re talking about the internet of things earlier on the show and it’s like people are going to be able to have your thermostat send 8,000 requests an hour or a minute to a website and they’re going to do that times 100 million thermostats and shut down Facebook or Google or who are some big company’s website because they’re not designed with security in mind. They’re designed, “Hey look, you can access your thermostat from your phone from anywhere in the world with no password.”
Frank Abagnale: [00:22:03] And it gets more dangerous than that. We have the ability now to shut someone’s pacemaker off, but we have to be within 35 feet of the person, so you have to get up walking past them on the sidewalk and if they have any device on them, you can shut it down, speed it up. We can take a car over because most cars have about 240 computer components in them, so we can get within 35 feet of that vehicle or we can lock the person in the car. We can shut the motor off, we can turn the airbag on, we can town the power windows and keep them shut, but the question is if we can do that now, does that mean in five years I could do that from 350 miles, 3,500 miles or 5,000 miles away. I think you’re going to see a lot of these things become a necessity to make sure that they cannot be manipulated, which they’re not doing now.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:53] I couldn’t agree more. Yeah. When I’m in my Tesla and somebody goes, “Hey, it’s so cool. You can unlock it with your phone,” and I go, “That just means anyone can unlock it with their phone.”
Frank Abagnale: [00:23:01] Exactly right.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:23:06] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger show with our guest, Frank Abagnale. We’ll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:27] this episode is also sponsored by Better Help. If something’s interfering with your happiness or preventing you from achieving your goals, like getting a full night of sleep or derailing some of that anxiety that’s been keeping you up all the time, Better Help online counseling is there for you. What I like about these guys is they offer licensed professional counselors who are specialized in issues like depression, stress, anxiety, relationships, sleeping, trauma, anger, grief, self-esteem. I know that’s a long list, but humans are complicated, right? Connect with your professional counselor in a safe and private online environment. In other words, it’s not something that’s going to be in an email that gets forwarded all over the place. Everything’s confidential. Mostly it’s convenient, right? You don’t have to drive across town, you don’t have to find a parking space, you’re not trying to get one slot with one person who then goes on vacation for three months a year. You can get help at your own time and at your own pace. It’s video, phone, chat, text, 21st-century therapy. If you’re, and if you’re not happy with your counselor, you can request a new one at any time and there’s no charge for that and a lot of you have experienced better help and then gone on to get in-person therapy and a lot of you have experienced Better Help and just raved about how convenient it is. and I’ve been sticking with it for a while. I know Jason, you’re on that tip and tell him what code we got for him. Tell him what deal we got.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:25:44] You can get 10% off your first month with a discount code, Jordan. So, why not get started today? Go to betterhelp.com/jordan. Simply fill out a questionnaire to help them assess your needs and get matched with a counselor you’ll love. That’s betterhelp.com/jordan.
[00:25:58] Thanks for listening and supporting the show, and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don’t forget we have a worksheet for today’s episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways from Frank Abagnale. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’d like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all of the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player so you don’t miss a single thing. Now back to our show with Frank Abagnale.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:35] A lot of your swindles, if you will, back in the day, they involved researching the other person a lot. For example, there a bank that you had swindled decades ago now. You knew the manager would be out, you knew the name of the manager’s wife as well. This sounds like a dumb question, I’m sure, but how do you get information like that and do research before the internet? Because for me, yeah, I look at all these databases, but how do you find the bank manager’s wife’s name and the country club they belong to before?
Frank Abagnale: [00:27:03] That’s why it’s so much easier today than when I did it 50 years ago, 50 years ago it took me making a lot of phone calls and doing a lot of research to get that information. Today, there is so much information. We live in a way too much information world. So, if you’re on LinkedIn and you tell me you graduated from the University of Nevada, I go to the yearbook for the University of Nevada online the year you graduate, I see who you befriended, maybe I see who you married to, so now I have your wife’s maiden name. You know, as I remind people all the time, some people call me the father of social engineering, but you have to understand when I did it, I didn’t even know I was social engineering people. But the truth is that there is no technology that can defeat social engineering, and there never will be. Not even AI can defeat social engineering. You can only defeat it by educating people. You have to educate people that they’re being socially engineered. So, there’s a big scam going on right now where they call into the phone company and they say to the phone company, they go through all the security questions, mother’s name, social security number, your pet’s name, everything they want to ask, everything they answer is correct, and then they say, “How can I help you? Well, the SIM card on my phone is broken. I need a new SIM card.” So, they mailed them a new SIM card, they put it in their phone and now they have everything that’s in your phone on their phone. But they know all the answers to the security questions because they’re everywhere. I mean there’s nothing they can ask me on a security question that I can’t go find out in a matter of seconds.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:34] That’s very true and that’s how a lot of people, I’m sure you heard about this when Bitcoin really spiked, a lot of people are going, “Wait, I got hacked.” And they go, “Oh your security settings are bad.” And they’d say, “No. Someone called AT&T said they were me; said my mother’s maiden name, the school, whatever the street I grew up; got a new SIM card; went on the website where I log in, said forgot password. They texted me a code to the phone that this person just reprogrammed — my phone number is their own, they got the code, not me. I was at AT&T store freaking out because I didn’t have service. They logged into my Bitcoin or my bank account and they drained it.” People go, “Oh my gosh.” So now the weak link is some guy in a call center at AT&T or Verizon who makes 15 bucks an hour. That’s, that’s not a weak link that I want with all of my money attached to it.
Frank Abagnale: [00:29:21] Absolutely. This is why one of the reasons I’ve been involved in this no passwords. Passwords are for tree houses. They were invented in 1964 when I was 16 years old before I had done any of these things. Here, it’s 71 we’re still using passwords. I want to be able to call the call center, and the call center of my bank identifies me from my phone and I press an app on my phone belonging to the bank and they know who I am. I don’t have to enter a password, I don’t have to answer any security questions, and most of all that call center doesn’t have any information about me. They’re not sitting at a screen looking at my social security number, my date of birth, my mother’s maiden name, all that information that they then can turn around and maybe sell to someone else. There’s certainly a way of making these things a lot safer, but like you said, the majority of people are so naive about these things. These things don’t even enter their mind that there are people who can do these things and they can do them from thousands of miles away.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:21] It’s so true. I went to guitar center yesterday. I had to buy a microphone kit and I show up and the guy goes, “Hey, do you want 5% cashback?” I said, “Sure,” because probably I’m just going to give him my phone number and he’s already got my name. And he goes, “Yeah, you just got to fill out this little form.” And the second question after name on the form was social security and I said, “Hey, I’m going to leave this blank,” and he goes, “No, no, we use that on our computer. That’s your customer number. I went, “You mean to tell me that my customer number or my record number, maybe not my customer, my record number at this store is my social security number.” And he goes, “Yeah, but every store does this.” I said, “No, I don’t think so,” and he goes, “Yeah, I used to work at this other…” He named a couple of other stores. He goes, “All of those databases, we just looked you up by social.” And I was just thinking, wow, so there are tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands of people across America who are able to access millions of people’s info at all of these department stores, all of these electronic stores, because you want $3 off of the thing you just bought.
Frank Abagnale: [00:31:23] Absolutely. I remember a few years ago going to a Westin, W-E-S-T-I-N, Hotel, a very nice hotel. The girl asked for my driver’s license, so I take it out to show who I am. She starts typing everything in my license on her computer. I said, “What are you doing?” “Oh, we just enter license numbers and all this information.” “First of all, I live in Oklahoma and my license number is my social security number. I don’t want you to have my social security number, date of birth. Your hotel is all over the world. Someone in Africa, someone in Nigeria somewhere has access to this information you’re typing in. I don’t want you putting that in there.” The people who are taking the information are naive about how someone could use that, whether it be internally or externally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:07] Yeah. To be fair, look, it’s not just Nigeria. I’m far more worried about the kid in Ohio who watched Catch Me If You Can last week with his dad than I am about somebody in Nigeria.
Frank Abagnale: [00:32:19] Exactly, the point that there are criminals now…It used to be 50 years ago you dealt with domestic criminals and it wasn’t that difficult to track them down, prosecute them. Today, you’re dealing with somebody who’s sitting in their pajamas in Moscow with a cup of coffee and a laptop, and they’re thousands of miles away. But this is also why we talked it about earlier, even in the old days, a con man had a little bit of conscience about him. He said to himself, “I’m going to take this man for his money, but I’m going to take all of his money because he’s kind of a nice man. I don’t want to take his home away from him.” There was some emotion involved in it. Today, the person never sees you. You never see them. They have no sympathy for the victim and that’s what’s so scary today.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:04] I was going to ask about this. This is why people are trolls on the internet. Because if I disagree with you about something, I might say, “Frank, you know, I like you, but I think you’re really wrong about XYZ policy.” But if I’m on the internet, what I say is, “I hope you die in a fire and you burn to death slowly.” If I ever met you in real life and you said, “Weren’t you the guy who said I hope you died in a fire and burn us slowly.” I would be embarrassed because I’m a normal human, but on Reddit, there’s no such thing.
Frank Abagnale: [00:33:35] No, no. Or on the internet.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:37] Right. The process for learning about airline stuff, like what equipment people use. This is called elicitation for people who haven’t really heard of it. It’s almost elicitation scan. The way you get information in the book and in the movie, you have this reporter gambit, where you say, “I’m with the school paper, I want to interview….” Was it a manager at TWA or United? And you were asking them questions.
Frank Abagnale: [00:34:02] They changed it a little bit in the movie. What it actually was is I went out to Hangar 14 which was a Pan Am Hangar out at JFK, and I said I’d like to interview one of the pilots for a story I was doing about being an international airline pilot. They had a like a stewardess and pilot lounge and they said, “You can go in and I’m sure they’d be happy to talk to you.” I started speaking to this captain and here I was this kid, I dressed to look like the kid and I was a kid, and basically I just started asking him these questions and I’d ask them, what does it mean to do about this or what’s the rate of climb on these planes, or how much fuel do these planes carry, how many hours do you work. And they were more than happy to answer them all these questions I’m sure never in their father’s imagination did they think I was gathering this information so I could pose as a pilot.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:53] Yeah, of course, because you look so young. I know you read a lot like you said you hung out at the airport. One thing that you mentioned in the book that I thought was crucial was you talked less than you listened.
Frank Abagnale: [00:35:05] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:06] That’s underrated.
Frank Abagnale: [00:35:09] I didn’t talk. I only answered direct questions and I tried to answer them. It’s an instinct. For example, if I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in Paris with this Pan Am pilot uniform and another Pan Am pilot walked up and said, “Hey, what’s going on this morning?” “Doing all right.” “Where are you based?” “Yeah, I’d say, well I was San Francisco.” “Oh really? You must know Captain Elliot Jones.” “Oh, yeah. I’ve met Elliott many times, flown with them a few times.” “What about Bill Carter?” You had to know at what point was he now testing me? The first one was just a convenient question. You know, it’s a real person, but by the second that third, you get that instinct that he’s testing me to see that probably he doesn’t exist or the guy is not based there. That was just a thing, I really had to learn how to read people and get that because you are caught in these situations where you are living a chameleon existence, and you had to be able to just be able to decipher those things. When are people testing me? When are people suspicious about me and et cetera?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:19] Did you ever have to say something like, “I got to confess, I’m a little bit new and I don’t think I’ve met Bill Jones. I do know the other guy, but I don’t know if I met Bill Jones. Should I know him? Am I embarrassing myself right now?” “Oh no, I’m just playing with it. I think he’s based out of Texas.”
Frank Abagnale: [00:36:35] Yeah. No, those are the kinds of things I do. But I had the sense when was that point was that in the first guy, he gave me; the second guy, he gave me; the third guy. That was just some instinct that you had to say, “Okay, now this guy is really just testing me, so I need to watch what I say.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:52] I think some of that has to be tone of voice, the way that they’re looking at you, are they really focused on you or are they doing their thing and making small talks because those things add together and you go, “Hmm, this person is putting a lot of attention on this last name that he’s asked me instead of checking. Why?”
Frank Abagnale: [00:37:10] Right. It’s so hard to explain because it’s their facial expressions and the way that you’re able to read it. As a young kid, nobody taught me to do this. I just know how to do this and I really don’t think about it. Like, wow, I was good at picking out what he said. It’s just that, that instinct, you’re looking at his facial expressions, his mannerisms, and you’re starting to realize, you know, this guy’s testing me. You can’t explain how did you know that. It’s like being observant, how’d you know those things. Sometimes, it’s just an instinct you had.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:46] I know that you had to keep a journal and you probably studied more for being a fake pilot than you would have, at least in the beginning, as a real pilot. I think it’s interesting though, that a lot of this is easier nowadays with technology. I mean, I’ve looked on websites like Quora that have a lot of Q and A and there’ll be something like, “How do I get a job as a security expert?” And someone at a big company will say, “Well, the first thing you got to know is this and I know it’s a weird programming language, but you got to remember all of our security software is written in cobalt.” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Okay, so all of this is on there.
Frank Abagnale: [00:38:23] Yeah. There’s just way too much information out there that today is so easy to do any of these things. It’s a little bit scary. You know, when I go to the airport now, I observe all time that when you go through security and the crew comes through, all they’re doing is flashing this ID card that I could make in five minutes, 10 times better looking than the ones the airlines actually give them and nobody’s really paying attention to it. They’re just holding it up and they walk through. Then you ask yourself, why all this security if this person just happens to have a uniform on and they’ve got this card that they could’ve made up with any software program that could have put a hologram on it, they could do whatever they wanted to make it look real and they can go through the airport. So, the technology in your hands today to do these things is just truly amazing and incredible and people were very naive about it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:14] Absolutely. I’ve made fake ideas. I hope this statute of limitations is up on this. I made fake IDs when I was a teenager and the way that I did it was I made the absolute worst possible photoshop printed off on a photo printer and laminated ID that you could possibly find. But since nobody had Photoshop, nobody had a photo printer and nobody had a laminator in there in the mid-90s, people would go, wow, okay, well this must be real. Now if you got this fake ID from anyone you would say, “So you obviously just made this and you probably did it on your phone.”
Frank Abagnale: [00:39:49] Exactly, and you remember this story that I got on board one of the flights and for the first time, a pilot said, “The FAA tower wants me to see your license.” I said, “Oh, you know, I put that in my flight bag and I checked it.” And he told them that and they’ve said, “Okay.” So then I thought to myself, I have an ID card, but I can’t let that happen again. I was looking through a flying magazine and I saw an ad where you could have actually a plaque made of your FAA license. It would be an aluminum plaque with black letters and velvet around it in the wood frame. All you had to do was supply them with the information. So, I sent it in, said I was just pilot. This is the equipment. I flew on my height, my weight, and they came back with this plaque. Then this plaque, I went into a printing shop in New York and I said to the guy, “Look, this is my pilot’s license on a plaque, but I’d like to be able to, you know, like a diploma, I’d like to keep it in my wallet. Can you do something with it?” “Yeah, I can put it on a high-tech camera. I’ll shoot it down and I’ll print it out on white cardstock that had the FAA logo on. It was black and white, to begin with.” And when it was done, I mean I had what looked exactly like the real FAA license. That’s why there’s so much more sophisticated today. But that’s how simple it was to do. And, and again, this technology didn’t exist. Today, the technology that exists is so much far easier to get those things done.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:15] This is amazing because of course you were supposed to have the FAA licensed, probably send a copy of that to the plaque place to have the plaque made. But instead, you had the plaque made and then use that to get the license.
Frank Abagnale: [00:41:24] Right. Exactly, because they didn’t ask me to send it. All they did is say fill out this form and then they put it on the plaque.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:30] Right, because who’s going to get a fake FAA license? Why? Well to be a pretend pilot.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:41:39] you’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger show with our guest, Frank Abagnale. We’ll be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:45] This episode is sponsored in part by Figs. Now the Figs are, I hate overusing this metaphor, like the 21st century of scrubs. Scrubs are what nurses, doctors, dentists, what they wear. If you’ve ever worn these or seen these, when you get up close and personal with them, they’re not high quality. It’s kind of like wearing a crummy bed sheet most of the time. Figs are amazing. What these amazing people do every day is more than a job. You’ve got to dress the part. This is a uniform. It should be functional. It shouldn’t get coffee on it. and then while you’re trying to clean it off, you rub a hole in the dang thing because it’s made out of Kleenex fabric. When I got the sample, I was like, these are super high quality. These are really, really nice. The fabric is thick enough but still breathable. They have zipper pockets. They’ve got stylish and functional scrubs and I didn’t know that these exist. I didn’t even know there’s that need for this kind of thing, but I don’t understand how previously these didn’t exist and that’s always the mark of a good product. When you wear this medical apparel, for lack of a better term, you’re going to look your best, feel your best, and they’ve got antimicrobial stuff. I don’t even probably need to explain to you what microbes get on scrubs. Okay, so antimicrobial seems like table stakes protects from germs and bacteria, really soft, wicks moisture, four-way stretch. They’ve got yoga waistbands instead of a crappy like shoelace drawstring like a lot of these other scrubs do, and they donate thousands of these sets in over 35 countries because they give scrubs to other health care providers around the world when you buy a pair of. Yes, there are gift cards available, so next time your doctor, nurse, dentist, dermatologist or pediatrician saves a day, tell him thank you., you can send them some things, or grab some for yourself or someone you love. Jason, I know we’ve got a good deal for them.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:52] This episode is also sponsored by Mighty Networks.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:14] this episode is also sponsored in part by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Everyone knows about the risks of driving drunk. You can get in a crash, people can get hurt or killed, but let’s look at some surprising and disgusting stats here. Almost 29 people in the US die every single day in alcohol-impaired vehicle crashes. That’s one person every 50 minutes. Even though drunk-driving fatalities have fallen by a third in the last three decades, drunk-driving crashes still claimed more than 10,000 lives each year, and drunk-driving can have a big impact on your wallet too. I think, honestly, it should, you can get arrested. Of course, you can incur huge legal expenses. You could possibly lose your job. Nobody wants to work with somebody who’s irresponsible enough to drink and drive and cause that kind of mess. So, what can you do to prevent drunk-driving? First of all, plan a safe ride home before you start drinking, designate sober driver, call a taxi, use one of those apps we’re all familiar with. If someone you know has been drinking, take their keys, get them a sober ride home. Yeah, they might be mad in the moment. They’ll thank you later. And so, will everybody else. Seriously, we all know the consequences of driving drunk. But one thing’s for sure you’re wrong. If you think it’s no big deal. and their slogan here is to drive sober or get pulled over. One of you emailed me and said, “Wow, that’s clever. Did you think of that?” And I did not think of that. My slogan would be a little darker. It’d be like drive sober or drive your family into soul-crushing debt and anxiety after you been in prison for manslaughter. I think the other one rhymes and probably is a little bit more of an earworm, so we went with that. But seriously, don’t drink a drive. You don’t need to. It’s terrible. Don’t let anybody else do it either.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:46:51] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don’t forget the worksheet for today’s episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’re listening in the Overcast player, please click that little star next to the episode. It really helps us out. Now for the conclusion of our show with Frank Abagnale.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:19] You must have had some close calls with the cops, with the FBI. I know in the movie, there’s one, I assume an apocryphal scene where Tom Hanks walks into the hotel room and you that you’re the secret service and you’re there already. I assume that didn’t happen, but there has to be some close calls where you took advantage of information disparity.
Frank Abagnale: [00:47:37] What a lot of people don’t know is what actually happened. What Steven Spielberg said is that he had actually scripted that scene, but on the set, during the entire making, the film was Joe Shea, who was the FBI agent, by Carl Hanratty character portrayed by Tom Hank and the two younger agents were there. During the entire filming, they were on the set. So, he got a lot of their information from them and basically, he’s asked them to read from his notes. He read that. I walked in the room, I had my gun drawn, I heard someone was in the restroom, I told him to come out. He then identified himself as a secret service agent. Steven Spielberg said, “I love his notes better than I loved my script, so I basically just followed his notes and that actually did take place just as it did.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:31] What? I thought for sure that that’s fake. I mean, you’re in this hotel room with fake checks and all paraphernalia and room service buffet or whatever, and then the FBI basically kicks in the door almost and you’re in there. He’s got, “Hands in the air.” “Hold on, you’re late. I already got him. He’s running out the window.”
Frank Abagnale: [00:48:52] Hey listen, if you play the game, you have to play the game to the very end. So, you know, it’s a big difference like I tell people all the time when they said you stood in front of that at night deposit box and you said it was out of order, weren’t you afraid that someone’s going to come in and question. You know, if you never did anything wrong in your life, and then you go do something, you’re very scared and you’re very worried you’re going to get caught. If you’ve done a whole bunch of things and people are chasing you and it’s just another thing, it’s just a question of I might get caught this time or I might not. So, you’re going to play the game out to the end and that’s all I was doing. I didn’t think I’d get away with it, but I just played it to the end and I did get away with it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:36] He must’ve been so angry after.
Frank Abagnale: [00:49:37] He was mad at me all the time.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:40] Did you ever get sick of being on the run? Like do you start thinking, “Oh, I should go home?” I mean, it sounds exhausting and it seems like I would almost want to get caught at some point just so I had an excuse to stop.
Frank Abagnale: [00:49:52] Absolutely. Even if I knew where all of these brought me to where I am today, I would never want to relive that again. It was an extremely lonely life. I never got to go to senior prom, a high school football game, share a relationship with someone my age. I didn’t see my parents or my family for years. I spent some horrible times in some horrible prisons. It certainly is not a life I’d recommend for anybody and would certainly not worth it to even where it brought me today. It was a life where people were constantly chasing you. You really didn’t have any friends. I met people and they believe me to be somebody else. That was one of the things that surprised me, that the people that I encountered, flight attendants, and other pilots, for example, doctors, I never cheated any of those people. On the contrary, I gave them money. I took them out to dinner. I took them on trips. But when it was found out who I really was, and the police questioned them, they were very, very angry, and as a young kid, I couldn’t understand, “Why is this girl mad at me? I never did anything to this girl. On the contrary, I bought her all these things. I took her all these places.” But what it really came down to is people do not like to be deceived. and they felt that I took you in as a friend, I trusted you, and you were lying to me all the time. No, you didn’t physically take anything from me. You didn’t physically harm me, but you truly deceived me. I realized to people that had much more impact, just like people say that when someone robbed their house and they said, “Well, no, they didn’t take anything, but they went through all my drawers and everything like that,” and it bothers them considerably. I came down the stand that that was a real thing that, that really bothered people, that they were deceived.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:38] I think that’s probably it. Look, I mean there was, was her name of Rosalie or at least that was it in the book. You’re going to marry her. I mean, she didn’t care about, I’m sure she thought vacations or nice bags or whatever. We’re cool. But I mean, she was probably looking forward more to starting a family and then she found out you, you weren’t even you.
Frank Abagnale: [00:51:57] Right. I was telling her that because she was 26, 27 years old, I was 18 years old and I knew she was getting serious about me. And so, I was just telling her, I’m not a pilot. Well, I met you on the plane when I was just riding in the jump seat. “I’m only telling you this because I care a lot about you. I’ve never told anybody this before, but you know, I ran away from home.” This is a circumstance. So, we’re out riding bicycles and she said, “Well, let’s go back to my house.” And I’ve said, “Why don’t you go and I’ll come in a few minutes,” and so I went by and I went one block over from her house and went down the side street and I looked over the fence and all the police cars were there. Well, you know, at that point I said to myself, see, you can’t trust anybody. They only like you for who they believe you are. That kind of reconfirmed that I’m never going tell anybody again who I am and what I did. But then years later I realized that this woman who actually met years later and her brother years later, she basically thought, here’s this kid, he’s in trouble. The police are looking for him. He could get hurt. She did the right thing. But for me, I looked at as an adolescent who said, “See, I was honest to one person and tell them the truth and they turn around and call the police.” But that was the mind of a kid versus the mind of an adult-like she was.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:17] Yeah, of course. What was that maybe one of the worst or first real emotional consequences you had from your scam? I mean, it seems like your feelings were hurt for maybe the first time.
Frank Abagnale: [00:53:30] Absolutely and went through that whole thing that people really only like you for who they think you are and if you’re not the pilot, you’re not the doctor, you’re not somebody important, then people really don’t care about you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:41] Did you think you could or would stop at some point on your own? Or did you feel like you had a wolf by the ears where you just couldn’t stop because people were chasing?
Frank Abagnale: [00:53:51] I eventually did stop because you get tired of running and I was getting older and the other thing that came into play is your conscience. When I was 16, I really had no conscience. I didn’t think about any consequences or what’s going to happen to me. But as I got a little older, for example, I used to walk in the bank and just cash a check. But as I got a little older, I’d go in the bank and I’d have to convince the teller, the cash a check for me. Then when I walked out, I’d say to myself, I hope this teller doesn’t lose her job because really, she wasn’t supposed to do this and I convinced her to do it, and I’d hate to think that they’re going to fire her because she did it. My conscience was starting to really, really bother me. I always knew I’d get caught. You’d have to be a fool to think you’re not going to get caught. But I didn’t have it in me to go turn myself in, so I moved to this little town in Southern France and I left a trail, they’d eventually followed the trail, and they’d eventually catch me in and they did.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:51] I know that you also ended up in a personating a doctor. To your point, that’s one of those things that you can just only do when you’re younger and you feel invincible or if you’re a complete and total sociopath, which you are or not because this was obviously dangerous and you have to be in a position where you’re not really thinking about that and I know you used humor and flirting to deflect disaster and real duties and things like that when you were kind of put on an emergency shift. But there’s a point in the book where they say there’s a blue baby in room 608 and you’re like, “Well, I got a green baby in 609.” It’s like, “No, that means the baby’s dying.”
Frank Abagnale: [00:55:31] Right, exactly. You know, again, the doctor, not premeditated, I moved into this apartment complex in Atlanta. It asked on the application occupation. I didn’t want to write down airline pilot because they were looking for me posing as a pilot. I wrote down doctor and that’s all I was going to write down. Then the girl started asking me questions about what kind of doctor are you. I said, “I’m a medical doctor. I’m not practicing medicine right now.” “Well, what type of medical doctor are you?” I said pediatrician because it was a singles complex, only single people live there. I thought that was pretty safe. But then I ended up meeting a doctor who was a pediatrician there. He introduced me to other people and then I started reading a little just to keep up a conversation with him. The next thing you know, they had an opening in the hospital because a doctor had had a death in a family and it was just for two weeks, and the doctor had left. They’re looking for someone in an administrative capacity to cover that shift. I always kind of looked at how far can this go. So, you know, I’d say to them. “Do I have to treat anybody? Do I have to physically take care of any? “No, no because you’re not licensed to practice medicine in the state. It’s just a temporary certificate in an administrative capacity.” I really didn’t go in like in the movie and look at a patient or something like that. I basically was just in the hospital, but I did get situations where they asked me questions and I had to go look it up or read a to answer the question. Again, I would have never stayed there even if I thought I was getting away with it because I was always smart enough to know that whole thing, you can fool people some of the time but you can’t fool people all the time. I knew that eventually people would get wise to me and they’d catch on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:11] Yeah, of course, so again, you’re kind of getting sucked into it. You thought I’m never going to have to pay the piper on this whole doctor thing. And then, you know, dot, dot, dot, you’re working at a hospital emergency room.
Frank Abagnale: [00:57:22] Exactly. But again, if I had premeditated, if I had said, I know I’m going to go to Georgia and I’m going to pose as a doctor and I’m going to go hospital a job in the hospital as a doctor, it would have never happened. If I was anything, I was an opportunist. I see these things came forward and I saw them as an opportunity. I could do that. I could get away with that. And again, because I was so young, I just thought I could do it, I was invincible, and I could get away with it. Had I’ve been older, I would’ve sat there and said, they’ll never believe that. I’ll never get away with that. They’ll catch me. It was just a totally being an adolescent had a lot to do with what I did.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:00] Why con your way into these exciting occupations and then become a lawyer. Look, I’m a former lawyer, but to con your way from an airline pilot, a doctor, to the lawyer, especially when being a pilot, you made more money. It’s kind of like getting a Michelin star and going to work at Chili’s. Like I love my lawyer buddies but the only reason I can think of is it must’ve been a great place to hide from the FBI at the Attorney General’s office.
Frank Abagnale: [00:58:26] You know, we’re back to the same thing, obviously I left the hospital because I knew I couldn’t stay there doing that, even if they had asked me to stay there. And then I met a flight attendant who basically I started talking to her. She was from Louisiana. She said that her father was the Attorney General there, and I started dating her and then she said something to me in a conversation…Back in those days, all pilots had second jobs. They could only work 80 hours a month. So, they were accountants, some of them were lawyers and they had owned small companies. They were entrepreneurs as well as flying. I made a comment to her that I had a law license that I had practiced law for a little bit, but then I became a pilot. But I said, now I’m furloughed, this is back when the airlines would furlough pilots for a month or years at a time. And I said, so I’m kind of looking for work. When I went down and met her dad, he said, “Well, why don’t you take the here in Louisiana, if you’re past the bar, you can work in my office. I just went ahead and did it. Again, it was an opportunity. If I said to myself, I’m going to Louisiana to be a lawyer, it would have never happened. So, I always look back at everything I did and think of myself as more of just an opportunist and that the fact that I was a kid, I was willing to take on those challenges without being scared about them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:44] You’re kind of like the Forrest Gump of imposters.
Frank Abagnale: [00:59:48] Exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:50] There’s a quote from the book that I just love and I think it’s a sheriff deputy that says this and he says, “Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sign it ‘U.R. Hooked’ and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong driver’s license for identification.”
Frank Abagnale: [01:00:07] I could, I could and I believed I could, and I probably would.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:12] That about says it all when it comes to your level of confidence and swagger when you’re doing this stuff. You mentioned that when it comes to forgery, it’s not how good the check looks, it’s how good the person behind the check looks.
Frank Abagnale: [01:00:26] Absolutely. Listen. When I first started making checks, I would go to these stationery stores and buy these, what they called blank counter checks that came in a pad, because back before MICR encoding and all that, you could just write out the check and then put your account number on it. I would type that, as I said in the book on an IBM Wheelwriter and I typed the bank’s name and over and over to look like it was actually printed on there and then I took a decal off these model planes and I put it up in the left-hand corner and I let it dry in a book overnight. So, it looked like that was four-colored decal up there or printed on there and I put Pan Am’s name in the same thing, type it. I mean if you looked at the check, you just said, “You got to be kidding. This is junk.” But they only saw that uniform. They paid no attention to the check. They just saw the pilot uniform and that’s all they cared about that was it. I mean it was just amazing to me how powerful that that uniform was and that’s just human nature about how people are.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:29] You mentioned it was easier for you to cash the fake checks when you kept the tellers attention on him and I think you mentioned something along these lines, I’m paraphrasing here, but you did this by paying close attention to her and is it Dale Carnegie who says to be interesting to other people be interested in other people.
Frank Abagnale: [01:01:47] Absolutely. I was the guy with, “That’s a beautiful necklace you have on. Is that a gift you got from your dad, boyfriend? “Oh, thank you very much.” Whatever the thing was I immediately turned it to them to distract, first of all, the check, but also just to get them. Many times, I wanted them in a little bit way to remember me because that’s when I started to learn how to float those checks and I could keep them from clearing for two or three weeks by manipulating the numbers on the bottom of them. This allowed me to come back to the same place and say, “Hi, do you remember me? I was in there about 10 days ago. You cashed a cashier’s check for me from me ‘Oh yeah, that’s right.’ And we talked about it.” “Yeah, exactly. I remember you.” “Well I had another one of those checks, could you cash it for me?” And they in their mind thought, well, obviously the check’s good or it would’ve bounced by now. I wanted a little bit of them to remember me as well as if I was returning there. So, I would always have some conversation with them about something they would remember.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:44] Can you explain a little bit about what the float is? I think you invented this. You were using the routing numbers and the bank employee’s lack of knowledge to get like five or seven extra days at a time.
Frank Abagnale: [01:02:55] No one at the bank knew what these magnetic numbers or MICR numbers were on the bottom of the check. I went to the library to study it and I realized that they were basically like a zip code, that there were 12 federal reserve banks in the United States. They’re numbered 01 which is Boston to 12 which is San Francisco. They go east to west and then there are 36 branches of the federal reserve, which is the third number in the line. If I would forge a check, say of New York bank, which would be 021 second federal reserve, first branch Manhattan, and I was to take that zero and change it to a one than when I cashed a check in New York, it would go to the 12th federal reserve San Francisco to its first branch in Honolulu, Hawaii. And by the time that check got all the way there and then that bank in Hawaii said, “Oh, this is a forged check,” stamped it and returned it all the way back to New York. You had a two-, three-week float.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:53] That goes back to your earlier point. People would think, “Oh well, this would have bounced sooner. I saw him two days ago.” I would have known this is bad because it must have gone through. They’re not thinking, “Oh, it’s a bank on Hawaii. Then they thought it was a mistake and then they mailed it back, dah, dah.” They have no idea.
Frank Abagnale: [01:04:12] And somebody else’s thinking, they just said, why do you want to make it obvious to the person like talking to them and pointing out things, so then they remember. No, for me it was more about I want them to remember me because I’m planning to come back here in a week or two and I have to have some way to start the conversation so that they’re assured with, “Oh, I cashed his last check. It was good. So, this checks good.”
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:33] Right. If you’re dealing with somebody else or somebody says, “Hey, I don’t know about this.” They say, “Oh, I’ve been working with him before.” “Oh, well, in that case, my suspicion is melting away.”
Frank Abagnale: [01:04:45] Exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:46] Yeah, and you used real checks on bogus accounts, not fake checks once you got really good at this. You didn’t need to be like a forgery expert every time?
Frank Abagnale: [01:04:53] No. Again, this is a perfect example of being just something I did. I walked in a bank in Chicago, my entire attention was to go in this bank and open a checking account with a hundred dollars. I knew that in two weeks their check printer would mail me 200 checks with this name and ID I already had. Then I’d go out and cash all these 200 personal checks. I went into the bank and opened the account and they handed the girl $100 and she said, “Well, here’s some temporary checks. We’ll be mailing you your printed checks in about 10 days. Now because I was young and inquisitive, I just happened to say to her, I noticed that I don’t have any deposit slips.” “Oh no, if you need to make a deposit in the meantime, just go over there to that table in the lobby and help yourself to a blank deposit slip. Then write your account number in and then use these until you get your printed ones.” So, I walked over and I took a stack of them off there and I went back and I kept sitting in the hotel room saying to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I encoded my account number on the bottom of all these blanks and then I went back to the bank, put ’em on the shell. So, that’s exactly what I did. and everybody who came in put their money in my account. But these are just things that I thought of as I was doing them. I would, again, that’s some plan I had, I went one direction and then I came up thinking, well I could go do this in another direction.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:60:15] That’s crazy. I can totally see that working. Nobody’s going to look at the bottom and go, “Hey, the account numbers already filled in.” That doesn’t make any sense. They’re just going to turn it in at the table.
Frank Abagnale: [01:06:24] Right, and how it worked was very simple that if you had gone and take one off the table in the center of the lobby, you would have rewritten in your account number on the box. But the computers were set up to read the MICR line first but no MICR line, it read the optical read of what you wrote. So in my case, it was only reading the MICR line, ignoring the optical line and putting the money in my account.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:47] So for people who don’t know what that is, the machine looks at the machine printing first and it’s not going to look at the handwriting. So if your machine prints your account number in there, it’s going to ignore whatever people write in and just put the money in whatever’s machine-printed on the piece paper.
Frank Abagnale: [01:07:02] Exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:04] That’s amazing. There’s something that didn’t make it in the movie, which makes me, or if it did, it’s just escaping me. You actually had to impersonate the FBI to go back and get a check where you put your real name on the back. What was up with that?
Frank Abagnale: [01:07:16] That was another amazing thing. I was in Eureka, California. When I wasn’t posing as a pilot or anybody, I was just an 18-year-old kid. I was looking for an 18-year-old girl. I met a girl out there who was my age. I told her my real name. I told her how old I actually was and then I turned around and took a check and I had written her phone number on the back of the check because she was giving me her number. I didn’t have any paper, so I took one of these checks out and I just turned it over and wrote her phone number on it. Then I didn’t realize that a check I cashed in Eureka, California at this small bank. I realized after I’d cashed it there, that that girl’s phone number was on the back and if the FBI got that check and they called that number and that girl said, “Well, the only guy I ever met with this guy Frank Abagnale, he was like 18 and he was driving this car and all that.” So, I knew I had to get that check back. I realized that the check was going to come back as a forgery, the bank would report it. What I did is I waited at what I felt was the amount of time that it would’ve come back. They knew it was no good. I waited until the teller that cashed it had gone to lunch. I walked in dressed in a suit and I just walked up to the reception and said, “Hi, my name is so and so. I’m with the FBI. I understand you have a check here. That’s a fraudulent check, a Pan Am check. “Oh yeah, that’s correct.” “I need to take that obviously for evidence for the US attorney’s office.” I said, “But if you like, you can make a copy of it. And just make a copy of the front of it. Keep that for your records. I’ll sign it that I took the actual check.” Then I took the actual check back in and destroyed it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:56] And of course, she only copied the front, not the back where you had your real name.
Frank Abagnale: [01:09:00] Right. I told her to just copy the front and I’ll initial it that I took it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:04] Wow. There’s got to be some times where you walked out of the bank and you just went, “Okay, I need to take a deep breath and like unclench every sphincter in my whole body right now, which is all dialed in.” Because that’s scary. I mean if she goes, I don’t think so. Or if the FBI’s already there, there’s a cop in the lobby. I mean you’re, you’re so screwed.
Frank Abagnale: [01:09:26] That’s exactly right. I mean that’s where I think this whole adolescent thing came in. I think had I been a little older, I would have been petrified about going back in. I probably would’ve never done it, but I would have been petrified about going in there. and somebody not believing me or questioning me or saying to me, “Well, let me see your credentials.” You know, I just kind of ad-lib these things and then in my mind I’ll deal with that when that happens, I don’t want to re-think it. I don’t want to pre-act this. It’s kind of like when they tell me to go do a video, a training video, and they say, let’s run through it first. I don’t like to run through it. I said I’ll just do it and then if you don’t like it, we can do it again. I don’t like to have to run through. I like to ad-lib it and just do it. They call me one-take Abagnale because I just do it and I’m done. I did that IBM commercial. It scheduled five hours for me to film that IBM commercial. I did it in 30 minutes and I was gone.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:19] That’s funny. So the three traits of a good con man — that’s a good segue — Personality, observation, and research. We talked about observation. Is there a way that you train security people to hone their observation skills?
Frank Abagnale: [01:10:36] Yeah. Again, I find that a lot of people today are extremely educated. FBI agents that have lawyer backgrounds, accounting backgrounds when they come to the academy. They come from good families. They come from a great educational background. They’re very smart people. But I try to teach them to not look at everything black and white, that you have to look at things that maybe it’s not exactly that. Maybe that’s not what they say or they’re making you want to believe that. I also teach them how to get information, staying within the legal limits of the law, but how to get information that you need for your case without going over that line and breaking the law. But again, I find that a lot of them are not resourceful, so they really have to be taught that. That’s basically what I do now. Crime has changed a lot. When I went to the FBI Academy 43 years ago, there were no computers. There was no internet the existed. Most of the things I was dealing with were forgeries and embezzlement cases and things like that. Today, in the last 20 years, everything I deal with is related around cyber and breaches and things involving the internet. I’ve had to change with crime. I’ve had to learn all these things over again. But the one thing that stays the same, no matter how much technology is in the world, the criminal mind stays the same, thinks the same. The same scams that they did 50 years ago are the same scams today. They’re just using another method to do it. Once, you know all those scams, you know how they think, it’s just a question of figuring out, now how are they doing it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:11] Right. So, criminal psychology, it sounds like never really changes, it’s just the methodology of the crimes changes.
Frank Abagnale: [01:12:17] Absolutely.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:19] Do you have to think like a criminal every day? Is that kept more or less your day-to-day?
Frank Abagnale: [01:12:23] Every day, I have to think like a criminal. When I write a book that was my fifth book about crimes. When I write about crimes, no matter what they are, I have to think like that criminal. When I work, I spend a lot of the time with the agents out in the field as well, or their field offices, if they’re working with a case and I’m spitting with an agent, I have to go put myself in the mind of the person they’re chasing and ask myself, what would I do, what would be the thing that I would do if I had to get away or I had to hide what I did. In the same way, when I work with technology companies, I have to ask myself how would I defeat this; if I had to get in here, how would I get around all this security.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:07] My wife’s cousin, she called and said something scary just happened. and this reminded me of you when I was prepping for this interview, she said, “I got a call from the police department and they got me really riled up. They got me really scared and they said, ‘Someone’s been using your social security number and they’ve rented a car and they stole a car or something like that. They didn’t, they didn’t return the rental, they’d been using it in drug deals. We need you to verify some information. What is the exact amount you have in your bank account? All these other things.’ ” The phone call had dropped because she had to go to the parking structure in the city where she lived to get her car and that’s when she started to sort of thaw out a little, if you will, and she called us instead after that, instead of calling them back, they had even transferred her, they had called another person. They gave her a phone number of a real police department that they said they were calling from. She ended up calling someone else. It was just absolutely flabbergasting how complex this scam was. The reason this worked was what you call being under the ether. You mentioned this is crucial to cons. It’s this heightened emotional state that makes it really hard for the victim to think clearly or make rational decisions. You sort of condition them to trust you or to be infatuated with what’s presented. So, either greed or you’ve played all the right cards, they think you’re a cop or the DA, you hit that fear button, that panic button and that urgency button and that magic combination puts them under the ether.
Frank Abagnale: [01:14:42] Yeah, and you know, I’ve spent most of my career dealing with crimes against financial institutions, corporations, and government agencies. But in the last five years, I devoted a lot of my time to the AARP, which has 38 million members. These are seniors, 50 and older. The crimes that are perpetrated against the elderly folks are incredible. I wrote this book — I received no royalties. I have no advanced for this book — I wrote this book with the proceeds going to AARP for the sole purpose of helping educate people about these scams. I looked at every conceivable scam there is and how they work. and the one thing that I’ve always known and I even know better today, is that every scam, no matter how sophisticated or how amateur it is, there are two red flags. If you know these red flags, you will never be scammed. And the red flags are pretty simple. At some point, some time, I’m going to either ask you for money and I’m going to tell you I needed immediately; you can put it on Apple pay, go down to Walmart and get a Green Dot card, wire me the money. It’s got to be right now, today. Or I’m going to ask you for information. What’s your social security number? What’s your date of birth? What’s your mother’s maiden name? Even in a romance scam that goes on and many do from months and months and months and everything’s perfect, everything’s great in the relationship and then one day the 76-year-old woman says to Bob, “So Bob, look, if you only live two States away from me, how come you don’t come see me?” “Well, you know, I have to have this operation and it’s $35,000 and I don’t have the money and if I don’t have this operation, I don’t know that I’m actually going to make it.” “Well, you know, Bob, I wish you’ve told me I could loan you the money.” That’s the red flag. As soon as that comes up, then you have to ask yourself if you have a met Bob, do you really know who Bob is? Is he some guys sitting over in Athens, Greece or is he actually two States away? You have to be a much smarter consumer today as well as being a much smarter businessperson today, or you will get taken.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:16:47] That is zing for grease on that. You must see a lot of international scams where people are calling and they say they’re in Idaho but they’re in India or whatever.
Frank Abagnale: [01:16:57] Absolutely. We get a tremendous amount of scams, for example, out of Jamaica. Jamaican scams on sweepstakes scams. I will always have to smile because people say to me, “Well they called and said I won this sweepstake but I had to pay money immediately upfront to pay the tax before I could get the big money.” I said, “Well look, did you enter the sweepstakes?” “No.” “Well, then how did you win the sweepstakes?” You know, you have to put some common sense to it and unfortunately, people don’t do that, like you said, they get very caught up in it and these people believe me are very smooth talkers at sometimes they’re dealing with people who live alone, their husband passed away or wife passed away. They want to talk to somebody and that’s what I mean. They will let this sometimes go on and just become a friendly conversation and kind of befriend you. You think you can really get to know them on the telephone and then all of a sudden one day the scam goes into play. But I remind people all the time, this romance scam artist is not just dealing with you. He’s got 20 other women he’s dealing with. So, when he’s not talking to you, he’s talking to them, he’s working all of them and he’ll get back around you eventually, six months, a year later when it comes time to actually take you for the money.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:18:07] I’ve, I’ve seen this firsthand. I lived in Ukraine for a while and I love Ukraine. It’s just this happens to be where I saw this, but I would go to cybercafes because it was 10-plus years ago. And at the internet cafe, there’d be a guy with four women. They’re sitting there smoking and I don’t know, chatting with each other and he would say, “Something like, uh, blah, blah blah. I’m telling him, you’re my soulmate.” And I’ve watched him type and it would be like, “Just looking for my soulmate right now. Uh, here’s the girl and its photos of the girl that’s sitting there, and so she’s sort of familiarizing herself with what she is supposedly telling him, and this guy who was running the scam is doing all the typing. He’s setting up the PayPal account or whatever and doing, he’s pulling the levers, but she’s tracking the story because eventually, she’s probably going to meet the guy or have to call the guy on the phone and know all of that stuff.
Frank Abagnale: [01:18:57] That’s it. The whole thing is this, that the truth is the majority of people are honest, thank God and because they’re honest, they don’t have a deceptive mind. So, when the phone rings and it says it’s a police department and then they tell you they’ve arrested your grandson, but they know everything about your grandson, what kind of car he was driving, the name of his girlfriend that was in the car with him, his parents’ names, and then they tell you he’s in custody. He has to post a bond. If he doesn’t post it in the next hour, you’ll have to spend the weekend in jail. He asked us not to call his parents. He asked us to call you. Then the grandparents say, “Well no, no, I want to help. How do I do that?” “Well, if you just give me a credit card, we can post a bond on your credit card.” And people give them that information. First of all, it sounds so convincing because, on social media, they got all the information. The kid said, “Here’s a picture of my car, here’s my girlfriend’s name. I’ve been dating, here’s my parents’ name. They go to social media. They get all this information about you, so when they call it sounds so credible. They go, “Well, how did they know all that?” Well, they know all that because you told them all that on social media, you even provided them pictures. So, it just makes it so much easier for the scam artists and it makes it so much more believable. But I tell people, again before you part with that money, all you had to do is hang up the phone, look up the police department’s phone number, call the police and say, “I just got a call and said this guy was Sergeant O’Rourke. He said that my grandson in custody.” “No, ma’am, that’s called the grandparents’ scam. That’s not us. We don’t make those kinds of calls. Do not respond to that call.” That just takes a minute to do, but you need to take that extra step.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:39] Do you view the world and other people with more of a skeptical eye? I mean, do you automatically not trust other people or new people?
Frank Abagnale: [01:20:47] Absolutely not because I don’t like skeptical people, though I do believe that being skeptical is a virtue. I basically realized that I always feel to myself, who am I to judge anyone. So, I have this thing in my mind that I don’t judge people until I really get to know who they are, get to know something about them. I just don’t look at people and say, “I don’t trust this person. I will wait to hear what they say, or how they act before I’ll make that decision about them.” There’s nothing wrong with being a little skeptical, especially when someone’s asking you to part with information, personal information, or asking you to part with your money in your life savings. There is no problem with being skeptical and checking things out.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:33] In the book, this sort of come down, as you said, “I’ve reached the pinnacle of the criminal mountain and the view wasn’t that great. I’m not really living, I’m just surviving, and I’m not really enjoying myself.” I’m paraphrasing, of course. What, what was that feeling like? Because there’s a deeper sense of unhappiness when you have every toy you want. You can travel anywhere you get. You can be in a relationship with all these different women that you’re meeting all over the place and you’re still not happy. It’s like winning a gold medal in the Olympics and then going, “Oh, I got what I thought I wanted and I’m still not happy.” There’s a malaise that comes with that.
Frank Abagnale: [01:22:07] Absolutely. And that was just coming with age and maturity and getting older. When I look back on my life now at 71, I know that people are amazed by what I did between 16 and 21. But what’s truly amazes me every day that I wake up is that I did those things. I got caught. I went to prison for five years. I came out of prison. I’ve worked for my government for 43 years. I’ve been married to my one and only wife for 43 years. I have brought three wonderful sons into the world who’s one son is an FBI agent celebrating 14 years in the bureau. My life, every morning I wake up is unbelievable that I’ve been able to do that. But the truth is, the reason I have is that 43 years ago, I didn’t come out of prison and say to myself, “Oh, well, you know, I’m a changed man. I’ll never do this again.” I know people want me to say I was born again. I saw the light prison rehabilitated me. The truth is, I saw it as another opportunity. Here’s an opportunity to get out of jail. I’ll go do this, what the government wants me to do and then I’ll see what I’m going to do from there. But I met my wife on an undercover assignment. I fell in love with her. I told her everything about me. She trusted in me. She believed in me. She married me against the wishes of her parents, and she changed my life becoming a husband and bringing children into the world and fatherhood and the importance of all that. That changed too. I have changed the way I thought about things. I’m just so fortunate that that came into my life and that I live in a country where you can make a mistake, pay your debt back to society, and get up and start all over again and do something with your life if you really want to change your life. I’ve been very fortunate in those two counts I have.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:24:00] I really appreciate this story and I love the redemption here. You know, before we go up, what surprised me was how bad prison was in France. What the heck? You don’t think about that when you think about the European prison, you think about Sweden, you think about Norway. You don’t think solitary confinement, no light, no toilet, no clothing, no blanket. What’s going on there? That’s insane. It’s like —
Frank Abagnale: [01:24:23] I know that I have to say this, in the defense of the French. They believe that you go to prison to be punished, that you acted in a bad way, and you need to be put away and taken out of society. Their sentences are short. They don’t have these 10, 20 years sentences. There is no working out in the gym, watching TV, or living better than people on the street who haven’t broken the law or air condition. They believe that you go to prison to be punished. The truth is that the rate of recidivism in our country is over 80%. In Frances, it’s less than 1% and once you’ve gone to a French prison, you will never go back. When I go to France now, I don’t double park. I don’t jaywalk, I don’t do anything. I think of all the three prisons I was in, it truly had the most lasting effect on me personally.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:17] Yeah, I can see it. You almost died in there.
Frank Abagnale: [01:25:21] Yeah, it was bad.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:25] You ended up on a Swedish prison, which sounds like college in the United States with maybe a little bit of less drinking.
Frank Abagnale: [01:25:30] It was like going to the Holiday Inn. A total opposite where the Swedes believed that if you broke the law, there was a reason for it. So, we need to find out what the problem was. You wore your own clothes. They didn’t want to do anything. They immunize you. They, basically, read your own mail. Nobody censored it. It was a totally, totally different way of doing it. And the American prison system probably fell somewhere in between the two where no one really actually mistreated you, but you had lost your freedom. Prison has changed so much when I was in prison so many ago. I read today where these inmates are pulling scams off from inside prison. Well, they have access to the internet, they have access to phone calls. We could only make a phone call if you had a death in your immediate family. They made a 10-minute phone call from the warden’s office. Now they have all this access to the outside world, so they can basically pull off all the things that we’re pulling off when they were outside of prison.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:26:26] Yeah. You do hear about that, especially with mobile phones and things like that being so readily available in prison.
Frank Abagnale: [01:26:33] Absolutely.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:26:34] You ever still have nightmares about getting caught again? Prison was that bad. I don’t know if I’d ever shake it.
Frank Abagnale: [01:26:39] No. My wife will tell you that not often, but every so often I’ll wake up in the middle night and maybe scream or something and she’ll immediately jump up and say, “What happened?” Most people will say, “I thought this person was attacking me,” or “There was a spider on me. I wake up and say, “I thought it was back in prison. I was thinking I was back in prison,” or “I was being put back in prison.” So, yes, it’s always with you.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:27:03] Yeah. Do you ever still feel like an imposter? Like, “Oh, one day I’m going to go work with the FBI and they’re going to say, ‘Hey, we found out about this other thing you did,’ we got to take you in.”
Frank Abagnale: [01:27:12] No, I don’t worry about that anymore and I can travel anywhere in the world as I do all the time without ever having to worry about anything like that. If you pay your debt back to society and you do the right thing, they’re not going to harass you. Unfortunately, most people get out of prison and eventually end up doing something again and they end up back in prison. You can only change your life if you want to change your life. People can’t change your life for you. You have to, you have to want to do that and you have to have some reason, some motivation to want to do that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:27:46] Is it true that you were close to the FBI agent that ended up catching you?
Frank Abagnale: [01:27:50] Yeah, his real name was Joe Shea. S-H-E-A. He’s a wonderful man. He and I were friends for 30 years. He didn’t want his real name used in the movie. He was on the set during the making of the film and so Tom Hanks used an old 1950s football player named Carl Hanratty. Joe Shea and I were friends for 30 years. When I wrote a book called The Art of The Steal that dealt with identity theft a few years ago, I dedicated that book to him and in our relationship over those 30 years. He was just a wonderful man. He had two daughters. I stay very much in touch with them and close to them. He passed away a few years ago at 88, but he lived a great life up in sound mind, sound to health until he passed away. But he was a father figure and a wonderful man.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:28:36] This is a great story or set of stories and I really appreciate your time. I think this is just such a great redemption story, a great set of adventures, and the book, the movie, the book about scams, all of this is a worthy read. Thank you so much, Frank Abagnale, for coming on the show today.
Frank Abagnale: [01:28:54] Thanks for having me. I’ve enjoyed it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:28:58] Jason. This is awesome. I love it, so many stories, such a great interview. Clearly, he’s not sick of telling the stories.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:29:05] Oh, definitely not. I mean, there were so many stories I’d never heard before. I really think this is my favorite episode we’ve ever done.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:29:12] Yeah, this is one of the tops for sure. Every year, by the way, millions of American consumers, 7% of the population are victims of some scam or fraud. In 2017 there were 16.7 million victims of fraud who lost $16.8 billion. That’s a crazy high amount. Fraud is here to stay and it’s on the rise. Never in history has it been easier to be a con artist or be victimized by one. Because of technology, everything’s faster, everything’s more anonymous, everything’s more global, more interconnected. In his book, he covers identity theft, investment scams. It’s called Scan Me If You Can, which is clever, digital safety, there’s romance scams. I remember a couple of years ago, several years ago now, man, probably better part of a decade here, I was coming back from Ukraine and I saw a friend of mine at the airport and I went, “Oh Hey, why are you here? And she’s like, “Oh my uncle is waiting for his girlfriend from Ukraine. She was on your flight.” I waited with them because my parents had forgotten to pick me up actually. So, I was waiting for my parents to come get me and she never came out. He’s like, “Oh, maybe she got caught by in immigration, maybe there’s a problem.” I was able to sort of like circle back around because I had just gotten off the flight and so I went back and checked for them and sure enough, she just never got on the plane. She never got on the plane. Surprise, surprise, romance scam. I said, “Did she by chance have any problems? And they’re like, “No, I don’t know.” I circled back a couple of weeks later. “Oh, yeah. It turns out she got robbed going to the airport and asked for a bunch more money.” I went, “Oh yeah, don’t send it to her. This is so common.”
Jason DeFillippo: [01:30:53] Heard that one before.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:30:55] Yeah. It’s a bummer because she was flying to America to basically see her love of her life and maybe get married and you know, “Oh yeah, I lost my plane ticket and I need more money and all this stuff.” It’s like, “Ooh, this is never happening. This is not real.”
Jason DeFillippo: [01:31:09] Nope. Turns out her name was Vlad.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:31:11] Yup, exactly. Exactly. Her name was Vlad and she works at a cyber cafe and has 20 other guys who she’s scamming and says she’s coming. There is actually a difference by the way on who gets scammed demographically. Investment frauds are married guys who are college-educated and make over 50K because that’s who’s investing the most. Lottery victim scams are people who are not college-educated, make less than 50K and are single. An identity theft mostly is women who are single making less than 50K but they’re being victimized for identity theft at a rate higher than average for the general population, which is interesting. I thought that was kind of interesting. They’re more educated and they’re really the prime victim for identity theft.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:31:56] My ex-girlfriend was a victim of theft and she was targeted by somebody in her apartment building and actually like was waiting for the mailman. When the mailman came it was like, “Oh she’s out of town,” and took her mail and then signed up for credit cards, and just kept doing it. She ended up with like $100,000 in credit card debt from identity theft. They finally tracked down the guy who did it, who lived two apartments down, who was literally waiting at the mailbox and stealing all the single women’s mail in the place because he figured that they had good credit and he could just sign up and he’s still in the same building, so it’s still coming to the same address. It’s crazy what people do for money.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:32:39] I mean that always makes me think how much drugs are you doing where you’re stealing your neighbor’s identity.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:32:47] This was Hollywood, so probably a lot.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:32:37] Probably a lot. Good point. Yeah, exactly. Wow. Because like how are you not thinking, gee, I’m the first person, one of the first people that’s going to be on the list. It’s clearly a mail fraud. When you’re under stress, you’re more easily conned. If you’re slow to take prevention actions, like not signing up for the do-not-call registry, putting your name on those things at the mall like win this car, those are usually not what they seem. In fact, if you find out who the dealer is, usually the car is on loan, you have a chance at winning a similar vehicle. Not necessarily that one. There are all kinds of scams like this that are in there, the stock market stuff, drawings, all those sweepstakes, a lot of those he mentioned are scams. One scam that obviously is not that common, one that he ran. I saw this in the movie, I didn’t know this is real, but it turns out it is. He posed, of course, as an airline pilot, but then he went to a college campus and he fake hired a bunch of college girls as airline attendance so that they’d roll around Europe with him all summer. He interviewed a bunch of them. He chose ones with personalities that were more gullible and a little bit more adventurous and he chose I think like eight of them and he flew them all over Europe in fake Pan Am uniforms, fake Pan Am gear, gave him fake paychecks that he would then cash for them because we’re in Europe and banking this regulation, that company policy this. He would just give them cash and keep their checks because he was the one printing them anyway. It was just crazy. I mean some of this stuff is just straight out of the daydreams of 20-year-old men all over the world. You hate to glorify any kind of criminal activity but he just went full rockstar back then. The reason he did this was because he wanted not to have a bunch of girls traveling with him. He actually said that added some gray hair and took 10 years off of his life. The reason he did that was because he wanted more cover to go to hotels all over Europe where people were already looking for a single guy rolling around. He wanted to be able to pass bad checks everywhere so he would pass bad paychecks for the girls and for him and he would just rack tons of money. I mean, he made hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars during that summer because it wasn’t just him cashing paychecks. It was him and his whole gaggle of women distracting the staff, cashing checks, taking the cash, spending some of it. He could send some of them elsewhere to do decoy stuff and take photographs. I mean, he really had a whole, he had a whole racket going.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:35:20] He’s an evil genius because if you’ve ever been at those hotels where the pilots stay, they always roll in. It’s always the pilot, the copilot, and like seven women. He totally figured that out way before anybody else did. Genius!
Jordan Harbinger: [01:35:35] Yeah. Yeah. Just absolutely crazy. There are so many stories in the book, Catch Me If You Can. Obviously, you guys should watch the movie as well. This movie is amazing, Catch Me If You Can, if you haven’t seen it, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. I mean, what’s not to love? Great acting. Great story. Christopher Walken, of course. How could I forget? Great big thank you to Frank W. Abagnale. His newest book is Scam Me If You Can. His original book, Catch Me If He Can, link to that stuff will be in the show notes.
[01:36:01] I’m teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at Six-Minute Networking. It’s kind of like the good kind of social engineering. That course is free. That’s at jordanharbinger.com/course. Don’t do it later. I know you think you’re going to do it later. The problem kicking the can down the road, you cannot make up for lost time. When it comes to relationships and when it comes to networking, the number one mistake I see people make is not digging the well before you get thirsty. Once you need relationships, you’re too late. The drills take a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. It is not fluff. You ignore this at your own peril. jordanharbinger.com/course is where that is. By the way, most of the guests on the show subscribe to the course and the newsletter, so come join us. And speaking to building relationships, you can always reach out or follow us on social at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[01:36:50] This show is produced in association with Podcast One. This episode was co-produced by Jason DeFillippo and Jen Harbinger, show notes and worksheets are by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola, and I’m your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions and those of our guests are their own, and yes, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer. So, do your own research before you implement anything you hear on the show. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful, which should be in every episode. Please share the show with those you love and even those you don’t. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we’ll see you next time.
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