When legendary con man Frank Abagnale was 16 years old, he ran away from home and took a train to Penn Station in Manhattan. After forging checks for a few months to survive, Abagnale was having trouble passing the bad checks off to banks. He saw an airline pilot walk out of a hotel lobby and he thought if he was a pilot the banks would trust him more and he'd have an easier time cashing fraudulent checks.
"No one would question me because a pilot's uniform is so powerful" says Abagnale.
Abagnale called Pan American airlines and told the operator he was a pilot from San Francisco on a layover in New York City and the hotel dry-cleaning service lost his uniform. He was transferred to a Pan Am purchasing manager who then sent him to the company's uniform manufacturer to get a new one. Abagnale flew over 1 million miles for free with that uniform. Over the years, he posed as a doctor and worked as the chief resident at a hospital in Georgia, then he passed the bar in Louisiana and worked as a lawyer for a year. Over a six-year period, Frank Abagnale, who was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can, cashed over $2.5 million in bad checks in 26 countries. After being arrested in France when he was 21, he served a year in prison there before serving another year in Switzerland. He was sentenced to 12 years when he retuned to the U.S., but after four years he started working with the Bureau. For the last 40 years, he has helped the FBI catch fraudsters. Abagnale has also consulted for corporations and has designed ADP's payroll check used by thousands of companies, designed an official bank check used by over 3,000 financial institutions, and developed security features for car titles, birth certificates, and doctor prescription pads.
During an interview with Inc., Abagnale says that the con artist and the entrepreneur are not that different.
"A con artist gains your confidence," says Abagnale. "If you look at any successful professional, a salesperson, a marketer, a real estate agent, a trader, they all have the same qualities as the con man. The only difference is that one side uses their talents in the right direction and the con man is taking the easy way out."
At the heart of both people, successful entrepreneurs and con artists, is an unwavering confidence and motivation. Abagnale says entrepreneurs and con artists are not motived by money, they are motivated by success, by making something out of nothing.
Abagnale says both personalities have a passion for learning how things work.
"I was self-taught. I was the first one to alter the routing number on the checks, which would delay the amount of time before they knew it was a bad check," says Abagnale. "I went to the library and learned how checks work. I found out that routing numbers are like zip codes, the checks are sent to the bank that correlates to the routing number. If I manipulate those numbers to a bank far away, it would take longer to get back to the bank, which gave me more time to write more bad checks. It's about taking the time to research and think things out, honest people and criminals do the same thing. Just the direction, good or bad, is different."
When he posed as a doctor, he read medical journals and discussed new studies and learned the basics of medicine by speaking with a neighbor who was a pediatrician. When he posed as a lawyer, he studied for the bar for two months before passing it.
"If you're an entrepreneur or con artist, you're creative, observant and watch the things that are happening around you," says Abagnale. "Learn from other people. There are plenty of opportunities, but you have to find them and take advantage of them yourself."
Another trait Abagnale says that successful entrepreneurs and con artists have is a strong belief in what they are doing.
"You have to believe in what you do," says Abagnale. "Take something you truly believe in and go about it in an honest way. You need to sell something to someone that actually works, or service that helps someone."
Listen to the Inc. Uncensored podcast about con artists below: