His story caught the attention of director Steven Spielberg, who put it on the big screen in the movie Catch Me If You Can.
We're talking about Frank Abagnale – a man who used to be one of the world's most famous con men. CBN News caught up with the former con artist in Virginia Beach, who's now known for working to prevent the crimes he used to commit.
On the Run
"I'd like to cash this check here, and then I'd like to take you out for a steak dinner," actor Leonardo DiCaprio delivers the line in a charming way to an unsuspecting bank teller as he plays the part of Abagnale in the 2002 film.
Tom Hanks plays the FBI agent who finally tracked down the 21-year-old Abagnale in France, after a five-year crime spree.
"I ran away from home when I was 16 basically 'cause my parents were getting a divorce, and a judge in family court was making me choose which parent to live with," Abagnale told CBN News. "So I chose to run away instead."
He admits life on the run was by no means glamorous, regularly crying himself to sleep.CBN News sat down with the now 70-year-old at a Scam Jam event
"I started writing checks to support myself when the money ran out," he explained. "(I) kept writing the checks; I impersonated an airline pilot for a couple of years. I worked in a hospital as a doctor for a while."
"I took the bar in Louisiana and practiced law there for a while," Abagnale continued. "And by the time I was 21, I had written about $2.5 million worth of bad checks in 26 countries and 50 states."
Nearly 50 years later, part of life involves being the face of AARP's Fraud Watch Network. He speaks about avoiding scams and ways to protect families from crimes, including identity theft.
Abagnale has served as the Fraud Watch Network ambassador for four years now. He shares his criminal past and turnaround with audiences and also talks about potential pitfalls created by criminals in today's high-tech world.
Life on the other side began after the pursuing FBI agent rescued Abagnale from a federal prison in Virginia. The movie character's name is Carl Hanratty. In real life, it was Joseph Shea.
"He persuaded the government that he felt that I would be a great asset to the government if they took me out of prison to basically not only help educate agents to think out of the box and to look at things not as black and white, but also to do undercover work for the Bureau because I could take on these roles as different people and get enough time doing it to get enough information," Abagnale explained.
After six years, he was free to leave the FBI. He chose to stay and has worked for the bureau for more than 40 years.
Abagnale credits those close to him for helping him turn his life around.
"So it was more about my wife changing my life and my family and the responsibility of a family, and then, learning the love of country and being surrounded by people who influence you as a young person – that's what really changed my life," he shared.
Today, Abagnale teaches at the FBI Academy, trains agents in the field, and assists agents on cases.
He's also an author, public speaker, and consultant. His website describes him as "one of the world's most respected authorities on forgery, embezzlement, and secure documents."
"The last 20 years (has) all been cyber-related about breaches and cybercrimes, malware, ransomware, and those things," Abagnale said.
He says a few years ago, AARP contacted him about sharing ways to protect the elderly from fraud. A survey showed fraud as the number one concern for the organization's more than 38 million members.
"The actual incidents of fraud and ID theft – fraud mostly – it's drastically underreported because someone feels vulnerable, and they don't want to admit it," Jim Dau, state director of AARP Virginia, said
"Having people come together makes people realize, 'I'm not in this alone,'" he continued. "And one of the first steps to being able to remedy the situation is to admit that it happened."
Abagnale says people should know that "every scam is basically the same."
"At some point in that conversation, I'm going to either ask you for money, or I'm gonna ask you for information – social security number, date of birth, bank account number. Those are the red flags," he explained.
He adds each scam is "simple to solve" by what he calls "stop and verify."
"So if I call and say, 'I'm the IRS, and you owe back taxes, and you need to pay immediately right this minute,' I just hang up the phone and go to the White Pages and look up the IRS or go to the Government Pages and look up the IRS," he elaborated.
"Call the IRS that 'I received this call; this is the person's name.' And they're gonna tell me, 'That's a scam; ignore the call,'" he continued.
Abagnale says education is the most powerful weapon in fighting crime, and this former con artist has chosen to spend his life on the right side of the law sharing that knowledge.
**Originally published Sept. 24, 2018.