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Learning from the king of con men

By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It might seem peculiar for one of the world's leading business schools to invite as a guest speaker a man who made his name -- and, for a while, his fortune -- by conning a succession of corporations.

But then again, Frank Abagnale Jr. is no everyday con man.

Immortalized in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film "Catch Me If You Can," in which his youthful self was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Abagnale was one of the most notorious fraudsters of his era, stealing millions in the 1960s and impersonating an airline pilot, a pediatrician and a lawyer.

After being arrested in Paris in 1969 and serving a prison sentence, Abagnale turned himself into an anti-fraud adviser for both the FBI and a series of corporate clients, something he has now done for more than three decades.

Although Abagnale's Oklahoma-based company specializes in combating high-tech fraud, as he himself says, it was all very different when he began his own career as a con man.

Most famously, he impersonated a Pan Am pilot, visiting around 250 cities in 26 countries, free of charge. A key element of this scheme involved faking a Pan Am ID card, a process he completed by taking the logo from an airplane model kit sold at a hobby store.

This was the essence of his address to the assembled audience at Wharton -- businesses have to be even more vigilant against fraudsters nowadays, because technology has made their work so much more simple in many ways.

"What I did more than 40 years ago is now about 4,000 times easier to do because of technology," he said after his speech.

"When I used to print checks, I needed a Heidelberg printing press -- it was a million-dollar machine, it was 90 feet long and 18-feet high, and it required different printers and color separators and negatives.

"Today, I can open up a laptop, create a check from a large, existing Fortune 500 company, capture their logo from their web site, print it on their check and come out with a perfect document in a matter of just minutes."

Fast-moving fraud

With technology -- and its possible abuses -- advancing all the time, Abagnale says he is never short of clients.

"Technology tends to breed cons, and it always will," he said. "There are always people willing to use technology in a negative, self-serving way."

Abagnale began life as a con man aged 16 after the trauma of his parents' divorce prompted him to leave the affluent family home in New York state.

After arriving in Manhattan, Abagnale, who looked considerably older than his age, began trying to support himself with real work, but then started writing fraudulent checks.

He then began impersonating a pilot, keeping himself in cash by cashing bad airline checks at airport terminals.

As he points out, fraud in a lower-tech age was often far more difficult.

"You know, when I said I forged checks, people would say to me, 'How did you know who signed Pan Am's checks?' I said I had no idea. 'How did you know where they are drawn?' -- I would just make that up. I had no idea.


story.abagnale.jpg

Abagnale at the premiere of "Catch Me If You Can."

FACT BOX

FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006

FACT BOX

EMBA SNAPSHOT

Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.

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