SS: Everyone knows the Hollywood version of your young adulthood. But would you mind walking me through the phases of the second half of your career up until what you're doing now?
FA: Basically what happened is I was arrested in France at age 21. I served time and then was sent to a jail in Sweden. From there I was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison in Petserburg, VA. When I was 26 the government offered to let me out early if i went to work for them for the remainder of my sentence. So I did.
I started working with the FBI. I've been associated with the bureau for about 37 years. I did undercover work for a few years and worked in the field for a long time. I now teach at the FBI academy.
Once my parole was up and my debt paid back, the bureau asked me to stay on and I agreed under the condition that I stay on as a contractor. This allowed me to work for other companies and speak on the subject matter. That's how I started my business.
When I first started my business, I would go to banks and offer to come in and educate their employees. My fee was 500 dollars, but I told them not to pay me unless they felt my presentation was worthwhile. I still do the exact same thing today, except that the banks hire me to speak to thier corporate employees. I go in and speak to about 500 people. It's a 3 hour educational powerpoint and Q&A. My goal is to educate about protecting assets and ways that the bank can protect them and so on.
I just finished a 2 speaking tour of banks in the US. I also do some keynote speaking, mostly about my life and experience. That's more of an entertaining talk, and it's always followed by a Q&A. It's interesting, the first questions of the Q&A almost always start out about the movie, something like: "Did you like Leonardo DiCaprio?" The questions eventually start to focus on their personal security. It's amazing how important personal security and business security have become. Everyone is concerned about protecting their assets and their personal identity.
SS: I'm interested in talking to you about how you define success now versus back when you were running around posing as an airline pilot?
FA: Back then it truly was survival. I was a kid who just ran away from home and ended up in new york city. I had no money. The first thing I realized was that nobody's going to deal with a 16 year old boy. So, I changed one digit on my driver’s license, which didn't have a photo on it. so that made me a 26 year old. I had to act like a 26 year old, talk like a 26 year old. Then people started chasing me.
Most of my success from 16 to 21, when I was doing those things, all comes back to that I was an adolescent. At 16 I had no fear of being caught. I did not think about the consequences; I just walked in and did it. I've always believed that had I been a little older, and said “I think i'm gonna go out and start doing this,” I would have never gone out and did half the things i did because I would have thought it couldn’t be done.
I have to tell you i'm not born again, I didn't go to prison and [rehabilitate?] my myself. That's not the case. When i came out of prison I wasn't a changed person; I just looked at that as an opportunity to get out of prison. I didn't know whether or not I was going to do it again.
I met my wife 36 years ago on an undercover assignment. When the assignment was over, I told her who I really was, and she accepted that. Having a family and becoming a father was the thing that really changed my life. At 65 years old, when I look back at my life now, I am not amazed by the things I did between 16 and 21. I always look back on my life and say you know I was just some kid that got away with a bunch of stuff. What was amazing is I did those things, I went to prison, I paid my debt to my country, and I've gone on to be very successful...I had 3 amazing kids.
When my oldest son became an FBI agent, I was in the audience watching him cross the stage to accept his title, and I thought to myself there's nothing in my life that will top this. I’m just amazed at where my life has brought me. I attribute that to the fact that I live in a wonderful country where everyone gets a second chance. That's why I still work with the FBI today, 26 years beyond my legal obligation.
To this day, I have never accepted a dime from the government. I travel for the bureau about 60 days a year. I go out to field offices and I teach, but I don't allow them to reimburse my travel expenses. I look at this as a way to pay them back.
True success is not defined by how much money I make. Rather true success to me is that you find someone, you fall in love with them, they become your partner, you stay married to them, and then you bring children in the world and raise them the way they need to be raised so that they believe in God, respect their country and contribute to society. and when the day comes and you're 90 years old and you're gonna pass away, you can look back and say I'm married to my wife.
That's all the success that matters. It's irrelevant how much money I made over a lifetime. Success in how great of a father I am, that's the greatest success that any man can have.
My wife and my middle son own a business, he kind of manages it and she handles the book keeping. My youngest boy he's the only single one. he's 29 and went to the university of Beijing in china, he reads writes and speaks Chinese.
SS: Fraud—and preventing fraud—is about identifying shortcuts. What's your methodology for doing so, for finding shortcuts and exploiting them—or as is the case today, preventing them from being exploited?
FA: First let me share this with you. What is most amazing to me is that what I did now almost 50 years ago as a teenager is 4,000 times easier than when I did it. For example, when I printed checks 50 years ago, I made them on a heidelberg printing press. The press itself was about a million dollars and was 18 feet high and had ladders on it. In the movie, Steven Spielberg did a great job and found the press. There were color separations, there were negatives, there were plates. Today you sit down and pick a laptop and pick a victim. If your victim is delta airlines, I go to their website and grab their corporate logo, and in 5 to 10 minutes I’ve designed this beautiful 4 color check and I print out checks that are probably better looking than delta's actual checks. If you had walked up to me at that press almost 50 years ago and said frank these Pan Am checks you're printing are absolutely amazing, but let me ask you this how do you know where Pan Am banks? My answer would be I don't know, i'm just making up a bank's name. well how do you know who their account number is? i don't know, i'm just puttng down a number.
Today you just call your victim. You call Delta and ask. I would tell them I'm getting ready to pay an invoice and need to wire their money. They would give me account numbers and routing numbers. Then, I would call and ask for a shareholder report, and they mail it to me and there's a camera ready signature of the CEO and the major shareholders.
It amazes me that all of this has become easier to do, not more difficult. Keep in mind that I did all these things between the ages of 16 and 21, so the government sentenced me as a youthful offender. I ended up with 12 years in prison. If I did that today, to be honest it wouldn't be 2.5 million dollars, it would be 20 million dollars and I’d end up with community service in a country club prison.
First of all the US is at about 950 billion dollars annually in just fraud, and it's nothing to do with burglary, theft, narcotics. Last year the IRS paid 5 billion dollars in returns to people who filed taxes using someone else's identity. Now you have to look for real high dollar amounts. So consequently there's very little prosecution, and judges are more lenient about people who haven’t physically committed a violent act.
Today you have to be proactive, you cannot be reactive. You cannot rely on the police, the government, or the bank. You have to be educated on the risks.
I sell no products. I don't even allow my books to be sold if I'm speaking somewhere. I notice the audience starts pulling out pieces of paper and taking notes, even if they came in with a negative attitude. I have found that educating people is the key to preventing crime. People are smart enough to go out and make those changes.
Back in the late 1970s before I had written a book and no one knew about me, I would write public service announcements on behalf of the Department of Justice about protecting checkbooks and assets. The government would send these out to local police departments, and in the 80s I did a lot of bank statement stuffers. There would be a little picture of me and the text "take a tip from a retired master forger." Today there's none of that. You very rarely see any public service ads. So there's nobody really educating the public and people don't really know where to go.
As a country the majority of people are honest, so they don't think in a deceptive way. They're not thinking about it unless you put that in their mind, and so it is truly a matter of education.
SS: I think it's safe to say that you're a role model for a good many people. You just spoke to 20,000 students at Southern Illinois University, you keynoted for the Boy Scouts. I'm curious who your role models are, and how they helped you in your unique journey?
FA: I don't know that I had a lot of role models, save for my father. He was a great role model because he was a straight forward guy. They unfortunately portrayed him in both the movie and the musical as being somewhat of a con man, but he was the exact opposite of that. He was a very conservative gentleman, and he started a stationery store in NYC on the corner of 40th and Madison. He made a lot of money, but unfortunately he had a brother who bought into the business who was a CPA. His brother wasn't paying taxes, so my father lost his business. Though he did drink, I never saw him stagger or felt he had a drinking problem. When I said, “Hey dad how do you feel about driving a beat up car?” He said, “You know son the car doesn't make the man.” I think my dad was always my role model and loved and respected him very much. I realized from him the importance of being a father.
Different paragraph?? To be honest with you sometimes i get extremely discouraged and depressed at all the fraud you see out there. When people ask me why they see all this fraud going on, I tell them they think it's simplistic but we're living in a society today that doesn't teach ethics at home, that doesn't teach ethics at school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality. Only one of my sons had any courses on ethics. There's very few businesses that have a code of conduct or code of ethics. We've raised generations now that think it's okay to steal, okay to lie, okay to cheat.
You look at some of these senators and congressmen and they're basically con men. I am amazed that people made a big deal out of me when I'm nowhere close to where these people are. Tt's depressing to me.
You have to bring character and ethics back in the home and teach manners. Make sure that someone is instilling character and ethics — and this doesn't have anything to do with religion.
SS: What advice would you give young people who want to go into security like you? How is that advice colored by your past experience?
FA: You have to realize that, I get all of these emails and letters from people who are in prison. They claim to be the world's greatest hackers and that they could be great assets to my company or to Microsoft. I write them back and explain to them that this is not an easy thing to do. You can't go out and have someone hand you this kind of job. It takes years. When I first went there I was probably the most hated person, dealing with ivy league white boys, no women, no hispanics, no blacks. They were wondering who the criminal was. I had to take years to earn their respect and it took ages.
Everything I do is by referral. I just got back from singapore where i spoke to RSA which is a huge security conference. Those are people in the top echelons of the security business. Years ago they wouldn't dream of hiring me, and even now it’s never 100%. There's always people who don't like you. Sometimes I can't believe people who hold this against me because I did this when i was a kid.
You have to earn trust and you have to earn credibility. It takes time. With this younger generation they almost expect it to be handed to them right away. I don't think they realize they have to go out and earn it. It's not easy. I’ve been doing it 37 years, and it has taken me a long time to get to where I am. I tell young people you have to be patient, try to be the best at what you do. Everything you get, you have to earn. You have to know and keep up with your field.
When I first came to the FBI there was no cybercrime. There were no computers. As time went on I had to learn about new crimes. It wasn't like I was an expert in one area. It's a process and you have to be patient, but it certainly pays off in the end.
There’s a perfect example about reputation: If you build a barn and you do a shoddy job of it, you make money real quick and they'll never hire you again or refer you because it fell apart.
Everything in your career is based on your reputation. If you go out of your way to do things just to help your reputation people will remember and come back to you again.