Published in the November 18, 2016 edition


MELROSE — It’s been said that there’s nothing new under the sun. But this simply isn’t true. Schemers and con artists are constantly coming up with new scams and tricks to steal your money and identity every single day.

People who came out in a driving rain Tuesday night, Nov. 15 learned this fact and many more when they heard AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank W. Abagnale speak on all types of fraud, including robo-calls designed to extract private information and new ways thieves can gain access to bank accounts when shoppers use debit cards.

For the uninitiated, Abagnale was the subject of Catch Me If You Can, a 2002 Academy award nominated biographical film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks and directed by Stephen Spielberg. Abagnale’s life story started as a book before it became a box office sensation, a Broadway play and, finally, a television program. The film went on to earn $1 million for Dream Works Pictures.

After serving prison time for financial and impostor crimes he committed as a youth, the FBI hired Abagnale to work on fraud prevention programs. He is now one of the world’s most respected authorities on forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. For more than 40 years, he has worked with and advised and consulted with hundreds of financial institutions, government agencies and corporations around the world. Most recently, he has been on a circuit tour of eight communities in Massachusetts, and on Tuesday night, people as close to home as Wakefield and as far away as Framingham came to hear what he had to say.

Before State Director of AARP and Melrose resident Mike Festa welcomed Abagnale to the stage, he said, “AARP takes the issue of fraud seriously. This is a full frontal assault on fraud. AARP helps the battle.” Festa added that AARP’s Fraud Watch Network is the place to go for information. “It’s a free service to anyone,” he said.

Festa then introduced Abagnale, a well-spoken man who, Festa said, is “respected all over the world.”

Abagnale never flew a plane, never went to medical school or law school, yet he passed himself off as a physician, attorney, pilot and a U.S. Bureau of Prisons Agent, all between the ages of 15 and 21.

Abagnale, now 68, spoke about his life growing up in Bronxville, N.Y. He was one of four children and was 14 years old when he learned that his parents were divorcing.

“I was taken to a building that I soon learned was a family court,” he said. “I saw my parents standing before a judge. I walked to the bench and heard the judge read from papers. He never looked at me. When he said I had to choose which parent I wanted to live with, I stood there and cried. There was a 10-minute recess and after that I didn’t see my mother again for seven years and I never saw my father again.” Instead of choosing one parent over the other, Abagnale ran away.

Abagnale’s father owned a stationery store in Manhattan and before leaving the area he took checks from a checkbook and forged his father’s signature, thus committing his first crime and getting away with it.

As a youth (and now adult), Abagnale made a good presentation with his charm, sophistication and good manners. No one questioned him when he took on any of his false roles. How he got to that point is one for the books. As an example, he told of his scheme to get a Pan Am uniform from the airline’s executive office by claiming that the hotel he was staying at had lost his uniform when it was sent out for dry cleaning. He was advised to go to Wel-Bilt Uniform Company to be fitted for a new uniform. Payment for the uniform, it was explained, would come out of his next pay check. But since Abagnale was not on Pan Am’s payroll, he finagled a way to produce an authentic looking employee identification card and billing was arranged. Before finally being caught, the resourceful young man flew one million miles on Pan Am’s planes and traveled all over the world.

His luck changed when he was 21 and found himself imprisoned in the south of France on charges of forging checks. After completing his sentence, he was sent to Sweden where a warrant for his arrest on similar charges was outstanding. Then, he back to Georgia in the U.S. to serve yet another sentence.

Over the 40 years of his cleaned-up lifestyle, he married a woman named Kelly and fathered three sons, all of whom are college educated. Like his father, Abagnale’s eldest son Scott works for the FBI. The couple make their home in Charleston, S.C.

“God gave me a wife and three children; she gave me a family,” Abagnale said, becoming emotional.

He continued: “Being a real man has nothing to do with money or achievements or skills. A real man loves his wife. He is faithful to her. He puts his family first.”

Abagnale presented a few facts many in the audience were not aware of:

• Identity theft occurs every two seconds.

• Remote controls and security devices in homes can be used by unscrupulous individuals to steal financial data.

• Free memory stick giveaways at conferences and conventions often have malware installed in them.

• 10 percent of all children in the U.S. have been victims of identity theft.

He also commented on Facebook and cautioned people not to provide information about their place of birth or birth date on home pages. Abagnale said that 63 percent of all employers check what is posted on a job candidate’s Facebook page and warned people to use good judgment when posting a photo or comment, since 35 percent of employers will reject a candidate based on objectionable postings.

Abagnale also said that before junking a photo copier, the hard drive should be removed because every single document that’s ever been copied on the machine has been recorded on the hard drive.

He also spoke about shredders and said the only type to buy is a “security micro cut” shredder. Other shredders allow determined thieves to piece shredded strips of paper back together in a matter of minutes.

Abagnale provided a lesson about debit card versus credit card use and advised against using debit cards. Since April 9, 2015 debit card compromises have jumped 174 percent. Instead, he said that when making a purchase use the debit card as a credit card. That way the bank is liable for any fraud, not the card holder.

Abagnale said that anyone can be scammed. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about,” he commented.

Financial security progress is being made, but it’s slow in coming, according to Abagnale. “It took me three years to get the IRS to take Social Security numbers off Medicare cards and the 1040 booklets sent to taxpayers,” he said.

A little levity came toward the end of the evening during a question and answer session. One man from the audience asked if Abagnale got out of the plane through the aircraft’s toilet system in a scene from Catch Me If You Can.

Abagnale laughed and said, “No. I went out through a kitchen galley.”

Suzanne Bowering, owner of Holiday Travel on Main Street in Wakefield, said of the presentation, “It was a fascinating, fact-filled 90 minutes. The evening opened my eyes to things I would never think about, like the type of shredder to use, the big differences between using a debit and credit card and why you should even shred your address label off ‘junk’ magazines.”

In 1998 Abagnale was selected as a distinguished member of “Pinnacle 400” by CNN Financial News, a select group of 400 people chosen on the basis of great accomplishment and success in their fields.

In 2004, he was selected as the spokesperson for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA). He also has written numerous articles and books, including “The Art of the Steal,” “The Real U Guide to Identity Theft” and “Stealing Your Life.”

Visit for free alerts, tips and resources. Look, also, for “A Conversation with Frank Abagnale” on the site. Fraud victims also can call 877-908-3360 for peer counseling, support and services.