Frank Abagnale: Catch him if you can

The former ID thief made famous in a Leonardo DiCaprio movie wants to withdraw from the information security talk circuit after industry leaders challenge his credentials.

Frank Abagnale, a former conman whose crimes inspired the memoir and movie "Catch Me If You Can," says he's quitting security-related speaking engagements -- including his upcoming RSA Conference 2005 keynote -- in the wake of challenges to his credentials by industry leaders.

Best known for his teenaged fraud spree nearly 40 years ago, Abagnale's scheduled RSA presentation is billed as a talk about his redemption following a life "where by the age of 21 he had impersonated an international airline pilot, pediatrician, stockbroker, college professor and even an assistant attorney general -- all while cashing $2.5 million dollars in forged checks," according to an RSA Information Security Conference description.

But he's apparently having second thoughts in the wake of criticism his life story is inappropriate for conferences such as RSA, the biggest trade show in the industry.

Spokesman or poster child?

Controversy surrounding who is and is not an appropriate speaker spokesperson for the security industry is spilling out into the public eye. Read our guest commentary by Ira Winkler, CISSP.

"From this day on, I intend to avoid any online, computer or cybersecurity offers from any companies or associations," Abagnale, now a secure document consultant for Abagnale and Associates in Washington, D.C., said in an e-mail. "I don't think there is really anything more to be said. Why drag this on? I'm willing to drop out of the picture."

Abagnale's comments came after he learned some notable security experts were upset with his inclusion in the CSI speaker lineup. The controversy began when frequent security conference speaker Ira Winkler, wrote in an upcoming Security Wire Perspectives column that he supports Abagnale as a speaker, but not as the National Cybersecurity Association spokesperson. "In my opinion, Frank Abagnale has been a huge benefit to the security community for the last few decades," Winkler wrote. "Unfortunately, he is not famous for that, nor is he really a household name. He is only known for his felonies and the Hollywood movie ending. This regrettably excludes an otherwise honorable person from being an appropriate spokesperson in this case."

In fact, it was after receiving an advance copy of Winkler's upcoming column that Abagnale's publicist announced the speaker withdrawal attempt.

"We have contacted RSA and asked them to excuse Abagnale from the contractual agreement they have with the speakers agency, and we will pay the speakers agency's commission," said public relations specialist Kelly Welbes on Monday. "We are waiting for their decision. This is the best we can do as they can legally force [him] to honor the contract signed with the speakers' agency."

Conference officials hinted Monday they want the speaker to honor his commitment. "Abagnale did offer to back out of the speaking engagement, due to the controversy, [but I] told [Welbes] that we still want him to present," said Sandra Toms LaPedis, general manager of the RSA Conference. "It is within this spirit of the security community that we provide different experiences and histories through our program of keynote speakers, and we continue to be excited about the scheduled appearance of Frank Abagnale -- a fascinating lecturer and well-known expert on identity theft."

But some say Abagnale doesn't meet the criteria for a security keynote speaker. "We have hundreds of law enforcement and security professionals that are fully capable of telling people how to protect their identity because they have investigated and successfully prosecuted people that prey on citizens that have great insights how criminals function," said former U.S. cybersecurity czar Howard Schmidt, who reportedly withdrew from presenting at last month's Computer Security Institute (CSI) conference when informed Abagnale was also a speaker. "Why not use them to speak at these events that traditionally have been run by security/law enforcement people for security/law enforcement professionals."

Abagnale defended his CSI speech, which he said was booked through a speakers agency after conference organizers had heard of his work for Novell and Computer Associates. "When I heard there was some controversy by two members, I told CSI that I would excuse them from the speakers contract and I would pay the speakers bureau their commission," he said. "They pleaded with me not to back out, and they absolutely wanted me to speak. I did so and they have since written me and told me what a huge success my presentation was and how well it was received."

CSI Director Chris Keating said conference attendees were "overwhelmingly supportive" of Abagnale's appearance. "We had little to no complaints at all about his appearance. But all week long attendees, CSI members and other CSI speakers came up to me to praise Mr. Abagnale's appearance. He received a rousing applause from the crowd, which consisted almost entirely of computer security practitioners."

Abagnale, also a spokesman for the National Cyber Security Alliance, may throw in the towel there as well. "As far as NCSA goes, I am willing to be dropped as the spokesman for their [public service announcements], reimburse them all of the money paid to me, as well as my travel expenses to shoot the PSA and reimburse them for all out-of-pocket expenses for the cost of creating, filming and producing the PSA," he said.

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