Frank Abagnale: Catch Me If You Can @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Frank Abagnale

Here is the full transcript of American security consultant Frank Abagnale’s talk: Catch Me If You Can @ Talks at Google conference. 

Frank Abagnale: American security consultant

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here this morning.

I’m gonna ask your indulgence on two things. It’s allergy season, so I have a real hard time during this time of the year speaking. And two, most of the speaking I do when I walk up to the podium is very technical. It deals with cyber crime and identity theft, forgery, embezzlements, and things of that nature. I don’t often talk about my life.

But Google has asked me today to do something different and talk a little bit about my life. So I will do that. And then at the end, of course, I’ll take questions. And those questions can be about any subject matter that you like to ask. As you know, I’ve had a lot of people tell my story.

I had a great movie director write a film about my life. I had a great Broadway musical team make a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about my life. Had a popular television show on TV, “White Collar,” for four years created around my life. And most of those very creative people have actually never met me personally. But they’ve enjoyed telling my story from their point of view.

So I thought I would take a few minutes this morning and actually tell you the story from my point of view. I was raised just north of New York City in Westchester County, New York. I was actually one of four children in the family, the so-called middle child of the four. I was educated there by the Christian Brothers of Ireland in a private Catholic school called Iona where I went to school from kindergarten to high school.

By the time I had reached the age of 16, in the 10th grade, my parents after 22 years of marriage one day decided to get a divorce. Unlike most divorces where the children were usually the first to know, my parents were very good about keeping that a secret.

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I remember being in the 10th grade when the father walked in the classroom one afternoon, asked a brother to excuse me from class. When I came out in the hallway, the father handed me my books and told me that one of the brothers would drive me to the county seat in White Plains, New York where I would meet my parents, and they would explain what was going on.

I remember the brother dropped me at the steps of a big stone building and told me to go on up the steps where my parents would be waiting for me in the lobby. I remember climbing the steps, seeing a sign on the building that said “Family Court”. But I really didn’t understand what that meant.

When I arrived in the lobby, my parents were not there. But I was ushered into the back of an immense courtroom where my parents were standing before a judge. I couldn’t hear what the judge was saying, nor my parents’ response. But eventually, the judge saw me at the back of the room and motioned me to approach the bench.

So I walked up the stand in between my parents. I remember distinctly that the judge never looked at me. He never acknowledged. I was standing there. He simply read from his papers and said that my parents were getting a divorce. And because I was 16 years of age, I would need to tell the court which parent I chose to live with.

I started to cry. So I turned and ran out of the courtroom. Judge called for a 10-minute recess. But by the time my parents got outside, I was gone. My mother never saw me again for about seven years until I was a young adult.

Contrary to the movie, my father never saw me or ever spoke to me again. In the mid-1960s, running away was a very popular thing for young people. A lot of them got caught up in Haight-Ashbury, the hippie scene, the drug scene. Instead, I took a few belongings from my home, packed them in a bag, boarded what was then the New Haven and Hartford railroad for the short train ride down to Grand Central Terminal in New York.

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My father did own a stationary store in Manhattan. It was located on the corner of 40th and Madison. Like all of us, we had to work in that store. So from the time I was about 13, I made deliveries my dad in the summer on a bike. I knew the city very well. So naturally, I started looking for the same type of work.

There were a lot of signs on the windows– stock boy, delivery boy, part time. I’d walk in and apply. So tell me, young man, how old are you? Uh, 16. How far did you go in high school? Uh, 10th grade. I’ll hire you.

I went to work for a small amount of money a few hours a day. But I soon realized I couldn’t support myself on that amount of money. I also realized as long as people believed I was 16 years old, they weren’t going to pay me any more money. At 16, I was 6 foot tall. I’ve always had little gray hair.

My friends in school used to say that once a week, when we dressed in a suit for mass, I looked more like a teacher. So I decided to lie about my age. In New York, we had a driver’s license at 16. Back then, it didn’t have a photo on it, just an IBM card. So I altered one digit of my date of birth.

I was actually born in April of 1948. But I dropped the four, converted it to a three. And that made me 26 years old. I walked around applying for the same type of work. People gave me a little more money, a few more hours.

But even then, it was very difficult to make ends meet. One of the few things I had taken when I left home was a checkbook. I had money from work in the summers. I had some money in that checking account. So every so often, I would write a check to supplement my income– $20, $25.

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The funds were there. The checks were good. But it was my friends, my peers, who would constantly say to me, you know, you’re the only guy who walks into a bank in the middle of Manhattan. You have no account there. You don’t know a soul.

You talk to somebody behind the desk, and they OK your check. Oh, well, my checks are good. But if I walked in there, they wouldn’t touch my check. You walk in there, they don’t bat an eye. Years later, reporters would write and speculate and say that that was my upbringing– mannerisms, dress, appearance, speech.

Whatever it was, it was very easy to do. So consequently, when the money ran out, I kept writing those checks. Of course, the checks started to bounce. Police started looking for me as a runaway. So I thought maybe it was a good time to start thinking about leaving New York City.

But I was quite apprehensive about going to Chicago or Miami, wondered if they’d cash a New York check on a New York driver’s license in Miami as quickly as they did in Manhattan. I was walking up 42nd Street one afternoon about 5 o’clock in the evening, 16 years old, pondering all of these things, when I started to approach the front door of an old hotel that used to be there called the Commodore Hotel– now the Grand Hyatt.

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