Title: Catch Me If You Can
author Frank. W. Abagnale with Stan Redding
publisher Broadway Books
ISBN 0-7679-0538-5
pages 277
rating 7/10
summary Captivating tale of a young, creative criminal, defrauding banks and airlines in the 1970s
reviewer Stern

It has been said that success depends on three things: skill, luck, and timing. Had Bill Gates been born six hundred years ago, he'd be assistant shit-shoveler for the Duke of Silesia. Conversely, Charlemagne, if born today, would probably be an auto mechanic. Sometimes you read about somebody whose skills were so remarkably out of place that you marvel at the thought of what they could have accomplished if they had only been born in a different time and place. Charles Babbage was born 100 years too soon. John Law, given the chance, would have ruled Wall Street.

Catch Me If You Can is the apparently true story of a man named Frank Abagnale. In the mid-1970s, when still a teenager, he ran away from home and supported himself by forging checks. To call him a forger, however, is to call Frank Lloyd Wright a guy who builds houses -- a simplification that does injustice to his tremendous skills. Abagnale developed fully documented alternate identities, including that of a Pan Am pilot, a pediatrician, a public prosecutor, and a college sociology professor. In each case, he was able to forge authenticating documents, and in many cases, he was able to procure the actual certificates, passcards, uniforms, and other accountrements of the trade. He was so convincing that, when accused by airport officials of being a fake pilot, other pilots (some of whom had known him for years) rose to defend him!

Under these guises (but especially in his role as airline pilot), Abagnale forged millions of dollars in checks, and defrauded banks around the world. He was able to avoid capture in part because his persona was very convincing, but also because he revolutionalized the art of check-kiting, printing false routing information on the bottom of each check that would send them circling the United States for days or weeks before a human intercepted them and determined that they were fake. Also, as a 'pilot', he was able to ride for free around the United States, Europe, and Asia, spreading his fake checks over a huge number of different banks in different cities. This made him much harder to catch.

Why is this book appropriate for Slashdot readers? You can take it as a lesson in hacking for somebody who was never given the chance to use a computer. Abagnale hacked the banking system; he hacked airline industry procedures. He even hacked the Swedish penal system. He found and exploited fault modes that normal users had never noticed. You can also take the book as a primer in social engineering. Abagnale would never have been able to get away with his hacks, especially the early ones, if he had not understood how to charm a bank teller. In fact, his choice of airline pilot as his first alternate identity was driven in part by the realization that female bank tellers would swoon for a man in the pilot's uniform.

What's Bad?

As in any book by a rogue and con man, there is no way that 100% of this book is true, and you're never really sure when you are reading an anecdote that was made up. You will probably find yourself reading each chapter while sniffing for B.S. Personally, I found two episodes particularly suspect -- his pretending to be a stock broker (his grasp of the terminology was much to weak to fool anybody really in the financial markets), and his claim to have fooled eight college girls into travelling around Europe with him for a Summer, thinking they were working for Pan Am.

The most convincing stories were those in which he makes an error -- other people caught him making mistakes so subtle that an outsider would probably never have made them up. For example, airline pilots catching him in an error about which carriers served which cities, or a Harvard Law graduate catching him in an error about the professors with which he had studied.

What's Good?

I have no doubt that, had he been born in a slightly different environment, Abagnale would have been a fiersome computer hacker (in the positive or negative sense). His model is a valuable one, even if he used his creative skills to evil ends. Most people take for granted that barcodes are magic, that passcards separate real employees from the masses, and that anybody with the right jargon and the right clothing is in the right place. In some sense, we run our society (certainly our schools and businesses) like the insect hives that fiercely resist any outsider. Once the invader gets inside, it's treated like a member of the family. Read correctly, Abagnale's story can be both an inspiration and a warning. It inspires the reader to find the weaknesses in the systems around him, and it warns us to beware of our natural instinct to trust people who seem like us. Sometimes they're faking, and sometimes they do not have our best interests at heart.

By the way, Abagnale was eventually caught and served time for his crimes, but ended up running a secure-documents company in Washington, DC, and teaching courses on financial fraud for the FBI.

Stern is the president of Information Markets Corp.

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