SAN DIEGO--The FPA Experience 2011 annual conference here this week had one of the most colorful Americans in recent history as its first keynote speaker: Frank Abagnale Jr., the notorious imposter and check counterfeiter featured in the hit film, "Catch Me If You Can."
His appearance Thursday afternoon was aptly timed, given the renewed spotlight on banks’ risk controls sparked by news of $2 billion in rogue trading losses at UBS.
The 2002 movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, a subsequent TV show and an award-winning Broadway musical captured the essence of young Abagnale’s counterfeiting schemes in the 1960s while he successfully posed as an airline pilot, doctor and a lawyer.
At the Financial Planning Association conference, Abagnale recounted some of the real details of his extraordinary transformation from criminal — he cashed more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in 26 countries — into one of the most respected authorities on forgery, counterfeiting, embezzlement and identity theft.
“While they used creativity to tell my story from their point of view, I’m now going to tell you my story from my point of view,” Abagnale told the conference attendees.
The movie portrayed him as an only son, but Abagnale was actually one of four children of a couple that lived in New Rochelle, N.Y. At 16, he was summoned unexpectedly from high school to a divorce court proceeding he previously knew nothing about, at which the judge informed him that he had to chose which parent would be his guardian.
Abagnale couldn’t handle it, and he ran out of the courtroom and fled to Manhattan. He didn’t see his mother for another seven years and he never saw his father again, for the elder Abagnale died from a stairway fall while his son was in a French prison. At first he was able to find work, but employers did not pay a 16-year-old very much. So he forged his driver’s license – at that time a paper document with no photo – and turned his year of birth from 1948 to 1938.
He was able to get better pay, but not enough to live decently. His father had opened a checking account for him with a limited amount of funds, but when those funds were depleted, Abagnale started bouncing checks. A chance encounter with a group of airline pilots in front of a hotel gave Abagnale an idea: “That’s what I could do – become a pilot, fly all over the world, and I could get anyone, anywhere to cash a check for me!”
He then called Pan Am’s purchasing department pretending to be a pilot on a layover whose hotel had lost his uniform, and the company directed him to a uniform store that suited him – and billed Pan Am. Abagnale then flew alongside real pilots on 286 flights of other airlines, cashing checks everywhere.
During that time, Abagnale would open checking accounts under a fake name at banks across the country, picking up blank deposit slips in the lobby. He would imprint his account number on the slips, put them back in the branch lobby so that other bank customers would use them, unwittingly transferring money into Abagnale’s account.
Abagnale concocted another scheme not portrayed in the movie – he noticed all the various airline clerks at one airport would deposit cash in the night deposit box at the facility. So he bought a bank guard outfit at a local uniform store, placed a sign on the night deposit box that said it was “out of order and to give the bank guard your cash,” and all of the clerks did.
“I couldn’t believe that – how could a night deposit box be out of order?” Abagnale laughed at the conference. “It’s just like a postal mailbox!”
Also contrary to the movie, Abagnale studied longer than two weeks to pass the Louisiana bar exam, taking the standard two-month preparatory course. He also did not need to be a law school graduate, as the state at that time did not require it. He worked as an attorney for a year and left on his own – again, far different from the dramatic get-away at his engagement party depicted in the movie.
Abagnale knew he would eventually get caught, and at 21, he did. He served time in both France and Sweden before being extradited to the U.S. to serve a 12-year sentence. After serving four years, he was allowed to serve the rest of his time helping the FBI solve counterfeit crimes – and is still serving, 26 years after his sentence ended.
“I was brought up in a great country where everyone gets a second chance,” he says. Three presidents offered to pardon him, but he refused: “a piece of paper couldn’t erase my actions, only my actions could erase my actions.”
Abagnale credits the love of his wife and the respect of his sons, now grown, as the reason why he chose to live a better life.
“Steven Spielberg had a good story, but my best accomplishment was being a good husband and a father,” he told the conference attendees.
Katie Kuehner-Hebert writes for Financial Planning.