Former fraudster and current FBI associate Frank Abagnale has one response for people—ranging in age from eight to 80—who, based on his fame as the subject of the book, film and Broadway play “Catch Me if You Can,” regularly compliment his intelligence.

“Had I been brilliant, I don’t know if I would have found it necessary to break the law just to survive,” Abagnale says now, during the opening keynote for the second annual Accounting Today & NCCPAP LITPS Accounting Technology Forum June 24-25 in Woodbury, N.Y.

Abagnale’s ingenuity and resourcefulness, however, is undeniable when he recounts a life that includes impersonating a Pan Am pilot, defrauding corporations, and stealing identities—all before the age of 18.

Based on this activity, the FBI believed him to be 30 years old when they issued a John Doe warrant for his arrest at 18. Pan Am later estimated that between the ages of 16 and 18, he flew more than a million miles for free—though never on that airline, as he wanted to minimize his risk of being caught.

He was eventually, of course, and served prison time in France, Sweden and the United States.

“I always knew I'd get caught, only a few would think otherwise,” he said. “I was caught, and I went to some very bad places.”

After serving four years of his 12-year sentence in the U.S., Abagnale went to work for the FBI where he remains 38 years later, 12 years after his legal obligation ended. Meanwhile, he turned down three pardons from three different presidents.

“A paper won’t excuse my actions, only my actions will,” he explained.

Abagnale cannot profit from his now internationally successful life story, and has had very little involvement in its subsequent telling and retelling.

His current narrative has one central theme: family. A child of divorce, he described its “devastating” effects growing up, while repeatedly exalting the current love of his wife, to whom he’s been married 30-plus years, and his children.

While Abagnale and his family were pleased with the film version of his life, which director Steven Spielberg was drawn to as a redemption story, he took care to emphasize some gaps between Hollywood sheen and reality.

“How could I tell you my life was glamorous?” he asked. “I cried myself to sleep until I was 19 years old.”

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