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Legendary con man says education is best defense

Frank Abagnale was very good at what he did: defrauding people through a variety of confidence games that involved forgery and embezzlement, not to mention impersonations of a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot.

But that was more than 50 years ago, and people are infinitely more vulnerable to those playing the scam game nowadays, Abagnale says.

Abagnale, who was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 film “Catch Me If you Can,” is now a well-known FBI adviser and business consultant who has devoted his life to helping people avoid the types of crimes he committed and those that have evolved since then.

He also has joined forces with AARP and will give a free presentation on identity theft at 7 p.m. June 21 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Light refreshments start at 6 p.m., and doors open at 6:30 p.m. To sign up, call 1-877-926-8300.

There also will be a “teletown hall” from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., during which people can call in with questions. To join, go to or call 1-866-416-5212. AARP New Mexico will also highlight the teletown hall as a Facebook Live event broadcast at

Abagnale, who served five years in French, Swedish and U.S. prisons after he was first arrested in 1969, says the most powerful tool in fighting ever-evolving scams is education.

FILE – In this Dec. 16, 2002, file photograph, Frank Abagnale, Jr. poses for a photo at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Abagnale, a con man turned security consultant, has advised state governments to move cautiously when sending returns to taxpayers since fraudsters, many based outside of the United States, know that agencies cannot verify that all the returns are legitimate. (AP Photo/Lucy Nicholson, file)

“They’ve evolved to make it a thousand times easier than when I did it,” Abagnale said in a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. For example, Abagnale said before he created “a good-looking check from a major hotel or airline,” he spent eight months learning how to use a very expensive Heidelberg press with its intricacies of color separations and plate making. In all, he wrote $2.5 million worth of bad checks.

“I was very good at a very young age,” says Abagnale, 70.

Nowadays, it would take a thief about 15 minutes to make a reasonable facsimile of a company’s check with a laptop search of its logo, an authentic-looking signature by one of the firm’s executives and other details before printing out copies on decent enough paper so that “the risk of being caught is almost nil,” Abagnale said.

A problem for law enforcement is that “a lot of scam artists are not even in this country,” and foreign authorities are often not willing to cooperate, said Abagnale, who has taught at the FBI Academy for about four decades.

That’s why education is so important, he said.

“If you can explain to people what the scam is … once they understand it and that scam comes up, they know how it works.”

It’s part of his mission now as a partner with AARP, to spread the word that “in today’s environment, you have to be a little smarter as a consumer, a smarter business person,” he says. “You have to be a little skeptical.”

Here are two of the newest scams Abagnale wants to warn people about:

• Scammers are not only stealing people’s credit card numbers, but they’re setting up businesses to further identity theft. Abagnale says a friend of his received her credit card statement with a questionable merchant charge and an accompanying 1-800 number. When she called the number, she was pressed to verify “personal information.” Turns out the merchant was fake and nothing more than a front for harvesting details like Social Security numbers. Abagnale said this is one he could see himself falling for. His advice: don’t call numbers listed on credit card statements. To contact the credit card company, use the number on the back of your card.

“Anyone can fall for these scams,” he said. “I can be scammed myself.”

• So many people now know about IRS scams, that the perpetrators have “shifted gears” and are sending out letters rather than calling on the phone. The authentic-looking letter, bearing an IRS envelope with a Washington return address, warns of a lien on the taxpayer’s property and provides a 1-800 number that should be called immediately. Don’t do it.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-844-255-9210.