Greetings, fellow fraud-nerds! Today, as it is midsummer, and ’tis the season for travel, family vacations, and stolen tourists credit cards, I thought that rather than highlight current news in the fraud investigation and audit universe, we could take a fun look back at one of the true characters in the long and storied dance between the perpetrators and the investigators who doggedly pursue them.
Most of you are at least passingly familiar with the remarkable story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., aka “The Catch Me If You Can Guy,” aka the highly successful business fraud consultant, aka the greatest check washer of all time. For those of you who are unfamiliar, or if you want to do a deeper dive and read a great book, we highly recommend Frank’s autobiography (with co-author Stan Redding). It’s an entertaining and revealing read, if a bit dated in terms of fraud scheme logistics, but the social engineering principles remain as relevant as ever. They don’t call them “Confidence Men” for nothing!
Of course, Abagnale’s big break into pop culture came when Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks adapted the autobiography into the hit film of the same name. It’s a highly stylized, gauzy retrospective look back at the idealized jet set of the 1960’s. Leonardo DiCaprio plays our antihero with relish, and Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the stereotypical tireless gumshoe investigator, playing a human game of cat-and-mouse across the globe. It’s worth owning the blu-ray for the extras – including additional background and some cool FBI investigative documentary footage. But the book and movie are not what I want to focus on today. Rather, I want to highlight the value of persistence, determination, and plain old hard work.
I’ve attended a couple of lectures with Abagnale. These talks are Abagnale’s bread-and-butter, and you can video of many of them online. His “Talks at Google” episode is particuarly good. What’s interesting about Abagnale, and what makes him so different from a lot of the “reformed fraudster” lecture set is that he openly admits that he’s not “reformed” or “cured” in any way. He’ll straight-up tell you that he’s not necessarily a changed person, he just chooses not to use his talents for illegal activities. It’s remarkable when you see him tell a room full of fraud investigators, attorneys, and law enforcement that he’s still the same con man he always was.
But what is also remarkable, and sets Frank Abagnale, Jr. apart is his sheer work ethic. When he was washing checks, it was all he did. Nothing else. He set out to become the best check-washer in the world, and by most accounts he was. He was obsessive about learning and mastering the details of his craft, illegal though it might have been. This is one of the things that the movie gets correct, in my opinion. DiCaprio’s Abagnale is obsessive to the point of madness, which, though it may not be mentally healthy, did create a form of excellence in him.
That’s one of the key takeaways of Abagnale’s talks – if you work incredibly hard at something, you WILL get good at it. You may not be the best, but you’ll eventually become competent. He said that the only reason the FBI caught him was that he was finally pitted against an agent who was as obssessed with catching his man as Abagnale was in staying on the lam and living large. (Note: Carl Shea – Hanks’ version of Shea in the film is Carl Hanratty – is the real life FBI agent, and him and Abagnale are now friends and sometimes do seminars/speeches together).
There’s no shortcut: If you want to master anything, you have to be a bit obsessive about it. That may not go over well in the era of “work/life balance” and the foreign (to me) concept of “self-care.” If you put in the hard work and the long-term effort, nobody will be able to catch YOU.
Have a great weekend!