Carrie Rengers

Catch him if you can: Former con artist Frank Abagnale offers advice on avoiding scams

How to tell if you are a victim of identity theft

It isn't always easy to tell if your personal information has been stolen for fraudulent purposes or your accounts have been compromised. Here are some common signs that you might be a victim of identity theft. (Nicole L. Cvetnic / McClatchy)
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It isn't always easy to tell if your personal information has been stolen for fraudulent purposes or your accounts have been compromised. Here are some common signs that you might be a victim of identity theft. (Nicole L. Cvetnic / McClatchy)

You may not immediately know his name, but you’ve no doubt heard of Frank Abagnale.

He’s 70 now, but his criminal exploits from the time he was 16 to 21 — posing as a pilot, doctor and lawyer and forging many checks, among other things — were portrayed in the movie “Catch Me If You Can” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

“It was a very lonely life,” Abagnale says. “There was nothing glamorous about it.”

After spending five years in prison, Abagnale was released to the FBI. He has spent the past 42 years consulting with the bureau.

He also formed his own company to help people avoid scams and con artists, and he speaks nationally every year on behalf of AARP to help its members and others do the same.

AARP tax counselor Pat Sharkey offers advice and tips on how to avoid scams during tax season. The IRS will never call on the phone with tax questions. They will always send a letter. Taxpayers who question the source of letters from the IRS may t

Abagnale will speak from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Hughes Metropolitan Complex at 29th and Oliver. The event is free, though registration is required.

He’ll speak some about his past.

“I’m the one who wakes up every day and says, ‘Could this really be true? Did all those things happen?’ ”

Abagnale has all kinds of fun facts about his life.

For instance, his oldest son became an FBI agent.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Abagnale says of getting into the bureau. “He was hired on his own merits. I’ve always been very proud of that.”

He also shares tidbits from the movie and how in some cases it strayed from his own story, such as how while on a plane he escaped the FBI via a kitchen galley — not a toilet as the movie depicts.

Abagnale is forthright about his regrets over his crimes and how he’s still somewhat in awe of what he’s become today.

“We live in an amazing country. If you come back, pay your debt, it’s a country willing to give you a second chance. I owed a great debt to my country.”

Did you happen to fly through Wichita while posing as a pilot?

Ummm, probably not because most of the time it was major cities that I went to.

Have you ever been to Wichita?

Yes, a number of times. I actually lived and raised my three sons in Tulsa, Oklahoma. . . . Beautiful city. I love Kansas. Two of my sons graduated from KU.

While no one would probably complain of having Leonardo DiCaprio play them in a movie, who did you envision playing you?

Nobody, really. I never dreamed they’d make a movie. I’m not a movie-going person, actually. I watch very little television.

So your introduction to a bearded DiCaprio ended up being watching him in “Gangs of New York,” right?

I kept thinking to myself, I don’t understand how this person is playing me as a teenage boy. . . . Then when the movie came out, he did an amazing job. . . . His appearance, his character, his mannerisms were amazing.

Right down to his pinky?

He obviously did a little bit of his research. . . . When I pick up a glass, I lift up my pinky finger. It’s just an old habit of mine. . . . He had his finger up just like I would hold it.

What was it like watching yourself on screen?

It was very, very surreal because of the way he told the story and the way it unfolded. I thought he stayed very accurate to the story.

After you got out of prison, you had a series of jobs where you kept getting promoted to managerial levels, and that’s when your past would come up. So how did you then start your own business helping others detect scams?

(I realized) I’m never going to be able to hide what I did. . . . I need to take what is obviously negative and turn it into something positive. . . . I’ve established an amazing business.

How worried do we need to be about identify theft? How likely is it really going to happen to us?

Very likely. We have about 15 million victims a year who lose about $13 billion from identity theft. . . . If I can become you, what I can do as you is only limited to my imagination. . . . Identify theft has become a very simple crime.

What can people do to protect themselves?

I have always had a very simple philosophy over the last 42 years, and that is education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime. . . . The truth is, the majority of people are honest, and because they are honest, they don’t have a deceptive mind.

So you’re suggesting they learn about scams, such as the one where a fake police department is calling saying something about an outstanding warrant?

You can’t imagine how many thousands of people fall for that every day because they don’t know about it.

What are the main things people need to watch for?

Very simple: Every scam, every scam no matter the kind always has two elements to it. I’m either going to ask you for money or I’m gong to ask you for information.

But money is the big one?

That’s the red flag.

What about passwords? Are tough ones really that important?

Passwords are for tree houses. Passwords were actually developed in 1964. I was 16 years old. . . . And here we are in 2018 still using passwords, which is absolutely absurd. . . . We need to totally eliminate our passwords from our society and basically the world.

And replace them with what?

Your phone is going to be the device that identifies who you are.

We have to ask . . . any tips for eluding the police?

No. Of course, I wouldn’t tell anybody even if I had some tips. I don’t want to encourage anyone to commit any crimes.

Crimes are a lot easier these days than when you were committing them, aren’t they?

Technology has made it much easier. . . . There’s nothing you can’t find out from a few keystrokes of a computer from thousands of miles away.

How do you feel when you see the police in your rear-view mirror?

Well, obviously, I have nothing to hide. It doesn’t bother me at all.

How do you feel about your past these days? Are you proud of it? Ashamed of it?

I’m proud of what I’ve done with my life. I’m proud of being a great dad and a good husband and proud of what I do for a living. I will always regret what I did. . . . no matter what I do in my life. . . . There are people out there that still say, “Oh, he’s a scam artist, a con man.” . . . Those are things you realize you have to live with. . . . It will always come back to haunt me.

What’s one thing no one knows about you?

I am very shy. . . . I tell people I’m the master of no eye contact. If I make eye contact, people are going to come up and talk to me . . . and they’re going to talk to me about what I did.

This includes your speaking engagements, too?

When I arrive, I go over and sit in a corner until it’s my time to speak.

Yet you’ll still let people take photos with you, right?

But I’m not somebody who really enjoys that part of it.

To register for the event, call 877-926-8300 or go to aarp.cvent.com/StealingYourLife100218.

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com.
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