PORTLAND — When he was young and conned bank tellers to cash millions of dollars in fake checks, when he convinced doctors and lawyers he was a doctor or lawyer, and when he flew around the world pretending to be a pilot, Frank Abagnale said he wasn’t brilliant — but he was fearless.
He ran away from a broken home, ending up on the streets of New York City at the age of 16.
To survive, he knew he’d have to pretend he was older. He altered one digit in his driver’s license to show he was 26.
He wrote checks to support himself. “When the money ran out, I kept writing checks. People started chasing me.” He had to stay ahead of them. Often banks refused to cash his checks, saying he didn’t have an account.
One day he saw an airline crew coming out of a hotel and thought, “‘Wow. If I had that uniform then I could walk into a bank, say I was on a layover and was low on cash.” He found out where Pan Am pilots got their uniforms and convinced the supply company to fit him. They did. He offered to pay by check. The supply company told him no, fill out a form and the $245 uniform cost would come out of his paycheck.
The uniform was power, he said.
When cashing a check in the pilot’s uniform, bank workers said, ‘”Oh, absolutely. Whatever you need,'” Abagnale said.
The scams that followed were opportunities.
One day he was at the TWA terminal in his pilot uniform to buy a ticket.
“The ticket agent said, ‘Are you riding or buying?'”
“I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’
She said, ‘Are you flying in the jump seat for free or buying a ticket?’
I said, ‘I’m riding in the jump seat for free.'”
“Everything I did I learned,” he said. “I was more of an opportunist.”
After being caught and serving time in prison, he worked with the FBI and big corporations to fight fraud. He lectured and wrote books. One of his books was “Catch Me If You Can,” which Steven Spielberg bought the rights to make a movie.
Spielberg didn’t make the movie for 20 years after he bought the rights because, Abagnale said, Spielberg wanted to see what Abagnale would do with his life.
As the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a younger him, was being filmed, “I had nothing to do with the script. But at the end Spielberg contacted me.”
He asked Abagnale to play a cameo. Abagnale agreed to play a French police inspector in the movie. As for the movie, Abagnale said DiCaprio nailed the part. “He did an amazing job.”
He’s been married for more than 40 years. He and his wife raised three sons, one who works for the FBI. He and his family have vacationed in Maine. In fact, his mortgage checks are mailed to Lewiston, he said, adding that Lewiston is where the bank that holds his mortgage processes payments.
Most of his adult life Abagnale has helped government agencies and corporations fight fraud. Three years ago AARP’s Fraud Network asked him to help because “consumers are losing their life savings from these scams.”
He agreed. He tours 12 cities a year with AARP. Prevention is the best protection, Abagnale said. “Education is the most powerful tool.”