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Former international con artist helps AARP fight fraud

Former international con artist helps AARP fight fraud

Former international con artist helps AARP fight fraud
Photo Credit: Russell Mills

Former international con artist helps AARP fight fraud

Before he was old enough to buy a beer, Frank Abagnale was considered by the FBI to be the most successful bank robbery in American history.

He didn't use a gun; rather, he used his wits, his charm, and his skill as a forger.

And he soon branched out, successfully impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, an attorney - all before the age of 19, which is when the law finally caught up with him.

He served prison terms in France, Sweden, and eventually the United States, before he got an offer he couldn't refuse from the FBI agent who had pursued him.

Essentially, he was asked to come work for the agency undercover, helping prevent the very types of crimes he had committed so successfully.

More than 40 years later, Abagnale still works with the FBI, and also runs a consulting firm which specializes in uncovering and preventing commercial fraud.

But two years ago, he was approached by the AARP to become a "Fraud Watch Ambassador," and it was in that role he returned to the city in which he'd quietly lived for 25 years, raising three sons with his wife of 39 years.

That city, of course, is Tulsa, though during all those years, few people here knew who he was or that he was here.

KRMG sat down with him for an extensive, one-on-one interview in which we discussed his short but highly colorful criminal past, his life since incarceration, and his new mission - helping people avoid fraud.

[Listen to the full interview with Frank Abagnale HERE]

On that topic, he had a lot of advice.

There are no new scams, he said - just new ways to pull them off.

And sadly, they often go unreported, which means the same criminals have little incentive not to victimize more people.

"If you're scammed you need to tell someone, a loved one or the police, so they can do something about it," Abagnale said Wednesday. "People get very embarrassed. 'Boy, I was really taken by that guy. I'm not gong to tell anybody how I lost $20,000 of my money.'"

While he's working with the AARP, he said fraud's certainly not a problem that's confined to older people.

"I remind people all the time, it's nothing to be ashamed of if you've been scammed. I could be scammed tomorrow, anybody could be scammed."

He says there are simple steps one can take to help avoid becoming a victim.

"When you receive a robocall and you pick it up and it's a recording, you hang up the phone," he said, "because the longer you stay - they record with software how long you're on the phone - the more they're going to keep calling and sharing your number with someone else."

Don't believe your caller ID, he pointed out, because anything can be spoofed these days with software.

"The IRS does not call anyone, so if it says on the phone Internal Revenue it's not the Internal Revenue Service calling you," Abagnale said.

He says if you get an unsolicited call that's supposedly from the police department, an insurance agency - any business or agency -  he advises terminating the conversation and calling the listed phone number for that business or agency to see if the call was legitimate.

Don't call the phone number that was on your caller ID, or any number the possible scammer gives you.

Abagnale says many cases are frustrating, because some people refuse to believe they're being scammed, even when family, trusted friends, or business associates can clearly see what's happening.

People aren't stupid, he says, they're trusting. And that's in a mistake in a culture that in his opinion no longer has a strong ethical foundation.

"The truth is, we live an extremely unethical society. We're almost approaching a third world unethical society. We don't teach ethics at home. We don't teach ethics in school, because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. We don't teach ethics in college, I had three sons go to graduate school, only the one that went to law school had a course on ethics. When you go to the workplace, they might have a code of ethics, but they publish it once a year on the inside back cover of their annual report, they never really share that with their employees, it just looks good. So today we have a real lack of character and ethics in our country. People thinks it's okay to steal, it's okay to cheat...just look at our politicians. Look at the people running for office. Look at Washington, D.C. and the public corruption in government, state and county. It tells you where we are ethically. And this has nothing to do with religion, this is just right and wrong."

Abagnale doesn't duck questions about what he himself did, why he did it, how he did it.

And when asked what truly changed his life around, he didn't hesitate.

"I know that a lot of people would like me to say that I was born again, or I saw the light, or prison rehabilitated me," he said. "But the truth is that when the government took me out of prison when I was 26 I really don't think that I was so much a changed person...there was a possibility that I would have went back and did something again. You know, I just saw that as an opportunity to get out of prison. But then I met my wife. I met my wife on an undercover assignment so eventually I had to tell her who I really was. At the time I didn't have a dime to my name. My wife eventually married me against the wishes of her parents. Been married for 39 years, she gave me three wonderful sons, she gave me a family - she changed my life. I started to realize the importance of being a father and bringing someone into the world, the importance of having a wife and being responsible for someone beside yourself, I think all of that is what really turned my life around and changed my life."

And now, as the new AARP Fraud Watch Ambassador, he's taken on a new role in an effort to help others.

"I thought this was a unique opportunity as I come towards the end of my life that this was something that I could do that was totally different than I've done before, but it was along the same lines. I'm a big believer that education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime."

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