Part 3: Frank Abagnale, famous con man and inspiration for Leonardo DiCaprio movie character, offers advice to hackers

Frank Abagnale, the inspiration behind the hit movie Catch Me If You Can, talks with TechRepublic's Karen Roby about the dangers of social media posts.

Famous con man Frank Abagnale provides advice to hackers Frank Abagnale, the inspiration behind the hit movie, Catch Me If You Can, talks with TechRepublic's Karen Roby about the dangers of social media posts.

In part three of TechRepublic's four-part series "Mastermind con man behind Catch Me If You Can talks cybersecurity," TechRepublic's Karen Roby sat down with Frank Abagnale, the famous con man turned FBI Academy instructor who inspired Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the movie Catch Me If You Can, to discuss the dangers of social media. 

The following is an edited transcript of their interview held at Louisville's Bowman Field Regional Airport. 

SEE: Mastermind con man behind Catch Me If You Can talks cybersecurity (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Social media risks

Frank Abagnale: You always have to remember that what you send up in the cloud stays in the cloud. So, it's kind of like Facebook. I tell a lot of young people that if the FBI is going to hire you tomorrow they're going to go to your Facebook page. And if there's a picture of you nude on the beach with a bunch of drug paraphernalia all over your body, and wine bottles, and whiskey bottles, no, they're not going to hire you. 

And most Fortune 500 companies go to Facebook, about 70% of them, and they make decisions to hire about 55% on what they see, what they read. So I tell them that what you say on Facebook--what you post on Facebook--stays on Facebook. You can erase it, you can delete it, you can close your account, but it's always going to be retrievable.

"If there's a picture of you nude on the beach with a bunch of drug paraphernalia all over your body, and wine bottles, and whiskey bottles, no, they're not going to hire you."  Frank Abagnale

So I always remind young people before you post, before you make a statement, ask yourself, "Do I want my employer 10 years from now to see that? Or the school of admissions where I'm going to apply for college to see that, or read what I said?" 

And that's very important today, and that's how I look at the cloud--that everything you do stays up there. So a model sending up nude pictures of herself online never thinks that 15 years later they're going to come back down, and someone's going to see those pictures. I think people have to be very smart about what they do online, and what they say online knowing that it's always retrievable once it goes online.

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Frank Abagnale

I always tell young people that people like to tell you that life is short, but the truth is life is very long. Someone from my generation might live into their nineties. Certainly, my son's generation will probably live to be over one hundred. So when you make a mistake in life and when you mistreat someone, when you cheat on someone, when you lie to someone, when you deceive someone, those things mean nothing when they take place. But years later they come back to haunt you, and you start to regret that you were that bully. You regret that you did those things, or you mistreated someone, but you now have to live with it for many, many years beyond that, and you don't forget it. It comes back to bother you. I live with what I did as a burden in my life. Even though I've done all the things I've done, it's still a burden in my life, and I think about it constantly. And I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

So I always ask people to just simply think before you do something and ask yourself, "Do I really want to do this?" If you give it a minute, a thought, you probably wouldn't do it. And the Kevin Mitnicks of the world, he's turned out to be okay. I met him years ago when he was first starting out. 

"You can erase it, you can delete it, you can close your account, but it's always going to be retrievable." Frank Abagnale

The problem is that a lot of people who say, "I was the biggest hacker in the world, and I did this and now Microsoft should hire me. IBM should hire me." You have to earn that trust. You can't just expect some company to say, "Yeah, I know you're a great hacker, but how can I trust you to put you in my company in front of all this information and data?" 

So that's what I mean. It took me years in the FBI to earn the trust of the agents and the people I worked with in the government.

And so I tell people, "Yes, go strive for that." But don't expect that some banks are going to open the door tomorrow and say, "Yeah, come on in." That's not going to happen. You have to really work on wanting to change your life. 

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Actor Leonardo DiCaprio played Frank Abagnale in the blockbuster movie Catch Me if You Can.

A life fit for Hollywood

Karen Roby: How accurate was the movie (Catch Me If You Can) in portraying your life and the things that you did?

Frank Abagnale: I thought he [director Steven Spielberg] stayed very close to the story. It was the first time he had ever made a movie about a real, living person, so he was very careful about that. The bureau had an information officer on the set during the entire filming to make sure he stayed accurate to whatever the bureau's side of the story was. I thought he did. He changed minor things that really were not relevant to my life. When I watched the film, he chose to portray me as an only child. I have two brothers and a sister. In real life, my mother never remarried, but he has her get married in the movie. In real life, I never saw my father once I ran away, but in the movie he [Spielberg] felt it was important for me to go back, talk to my dad, who was played by actor Christopher Walken, for audience purposes.

"I know people are fascinated by all the things I did 50 years ago. But I'm fascinated every single day of my life." Frank Abagnale

I did escape off the plane, but I escaped from the kitchen gallery where they service the plane and bring the food on. He had me walk in a toilet and go down the toilet. I'm thinking, "I was desperate but not that desperate." And there was a scene in there when the bureau took me out of prison to go to work with the FBI, I went to the Washington field office, and that's true. They all stood up. They were very resentful that I was there, but I never left. He has a scene that I put the uniform on and then I come back. He's been questioned about that, and he said he was trying to establish with the audience that I had made up my mind to actually go straight. But that never happened. And then it took many, many years to build credibility within the bureau. I went in back when there were no women, there were no minorities. It was just white men that were from Harvard and Yale, and we got the accountants, lawyers, and so on. 

But it's been amazing. I look back on my life now, I just turned 71 in April, and I know people are fascinated by all the things I did 50 years ago. But I'm fascinated every single day of my life. I've been married to my one-and-only wife for 43 years, brought three wonderful sons into the world. My oldest boy is an FBI agent celebrating 14 years in the bureau. He supervises our kidnapping team out of Quantico. I have worked with my government for four decades. I've done many things around the world to help develop technology and paper and plastic and now more into software, like no passwords.

So I look back and think, "What an amazing country that I did the things I did. I went to prison, paid my debt, and I was able to come out and change my whole life and do something very positive with my life." So I'm always very grateful that I'm an American, and I live in a great country.

Karen Roby: And you've been of service to so many.

Frank Abagnale: So many companies and governments, and not only our own government, the British government, other governments around the world, the Australian government. I look back on my life, and I can't believe I did those things. I really don't think much about the other thing--I just think I was a kid who ran away and got in a lot of trouble, but it's just what I did after that. And only in America could that happen.

Also see

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Actor Leonardo DiCaprio played a character based on Frank Abagnale in the movie Catch Me if You Can.