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FBI Officials Discuss Virtual Kidnappings

What you should do if you receive a threatening call

Terror over the phone - Virtual Kidnappings part 2

AARP

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In part two of this special two-part episode on virtual kidnappings, we speak with the FBI to discuss how these scams started and what is being done to stop them. We talk to the FBI Special agent who cracked a virtual kidnapping ring, and — with virtual kidnappings on the rise in the U.S. — you’ll learn what to do if you receive a call. Then, for the first time ever, fraud expert and our host Frank Abagnale and his son, FBI Special Agent Scott Abagnale, sit down to do an interview together. They talk about growing up in the Abagnale household, Scott’s road to becoming an FBI agent, and what it was like when Frank taught one of Scott’s classes at the FBI Academy.

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[00:00:00] Julie: This week on AARP's The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] It was really an aha moment where the FBI goes, wow, the people making these phone calls all day, every day to the US are in prison in Mexico City, and they speak English, they speak English very well, um, and they're extorting US citizens over the telephone by literally saying they've kidnapped their son or daughter.

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[00:00:31] Julie: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm Julie Getz and with me today is, of course, our AARP Ambassador and Fraud Expert Frank Abagnale. Frank, it's always so good to see you.

[00:00:41] Frank Abagnale: Great to be with you Julie, thank you.

[00:00:42] Julie: Good. Frank, in the last episode we were talking about virtual kidnappings, when a scammer pretends to hold someone hostage to convince their victims to pay a ransom in exchange for their loved one's release. In this episode, we're going to learn more about what law enforcement is doing to crack down on these types of crimes. We also have a special guest, someone that you know quite well, right?

[00:01:03] Frank Abagnale: Yes.

[00:01:04] Julie: That's your son, Scott, who is the Unit Chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiations Unit. I'm excited to speak with the two of you together and hear some stories about your family.

[00:01:14] Frank Abagnale: That'll be great.

[00:01:15] Julie: Great. Okay, so last week we heard the story of a woman who almost was a victim of one of these virtual kidnapping scams when someone called to say that her daughter had been abducted and was being held for ransom.

[00:01:28] Kathie Gross: It was the worst fear and panic that I have ever felt. How long is too long to be thinking that your child is in a van speeding away from you and in harm's way?

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[00:01:42] Julie: The call catches Kathie off guard. It sounds like her daughter Jordan who she dropped off just an hour before.

[00:01:48] Kathie Gross: What I heard next was just, you know, insanity. "Mom, mom?" You know, just are you there? And then I said, "Oh my God, Jordan, where are you?" "I don't know. I think I'm on the freeway. There are no windows." All this time I'm thinking, this is her.

[00:02:08] Julie: That was Kathie Gross, and what she describes as the most terrifying experience of her life. Fortunately, Kathie's daughter was never kidnapped, and since that call one year ago, Kathie's been sharing her story in order to teach others how to best recognize red flags if they receive a similar call. Frank, are there other versions of this virtual kidnapping scam that people should look out for?

[00:02:30] Frank Abagnale: I think we mentioned once before in the case of a gentleman who went down to Mexico, checked into his hotel, and was told by the front clerk, uh you have uh been this number, X number of guests of checking into the hotel, so you've won a complete day out on a fishing excursion, and um everything's paid for. It's tomorrow morning. All you have to do is be ready at 6 a.m. You'll be out till 6 p.m., and the guy says, "Wow, that's amazing." And, of course, that was all part of the scam. The guy got on a boat. He had no cell access. As soon as he was out far enough from shore, they called the wife, said they had kidnapped him, they needed to be paid immediately. She frantically tried calling him. She called the hotel; he wasn't in the room. She couldn't reach him. And basically turned around and paid a ransom and wired the money. And the husband got back at 6 o'clock. He calls her, and she goes, "Are you okay? You know, I got this call." He said, "No, I've been out on this fishing excursion." And it turned out the police realized the guy at the hotel was in with this group of people who were doing these virtual kidnappings.

[00:03:31] Julie: Unfortunately that's why this scam is so successful. Victims are in such a state of fear that they'll do anything to protect their loved ones.

[00:03:39] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:03:40] Julie: So, we'll talk more about this later. In, in the meantime, I'm going to speak with Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot. He's part of the International Violent Crimes Unit in the Los Angeles Division of the FBI. I flew out to visit Erik at their offices. Joining him was the Bureau's Public Information Officer Rukelt Dalberis.

[00:03:57] Julie: Hi, Erik, Julie Getz.

[00:03:59] Erik Arbuthnot: Hi, nice to meet you. Welcome, welcome to the FBI.

[00:04:01] Julie: Hi, thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:04:02] Erik Arbuthnot: Nice to meet you.

[00:04:02] Julie: Rukelt.

[00:04:02] Rukelt Dalberis: Julie, nice to meet you, pleasure.

[00:04:04] Julie: Nice to meet you. Thanks for having uh, The Perfect Scam Podcast here at FBI in West Covina. Is that right?

[00:04:11] Erik Arbuthnot: Yep.

[00:04:12] Julie: Thanks so much. All right.

[00:04:13] Erik Arbuthnot: LA Division.

[00:04:14] Julie: LA Division.

[00:04:15] Erik Arbuthnot: But, but uh this is the West Covina RA.

[00:04:17] Julie: Great.

[00:04:18] Erik Arbuthnot: Yeah.

[00:04:18] Julie: Well, thanks so much. Do you mind if we go inside?

[00:04:19] Erik Arbuthnot: Yeah, come on in.

[00:04:20] Julie: Great, cool.

[00:04:22] Erik Arbuthnot: Thank you.

(walking into building)

[00:04:30] Julie: So, is it busy here?

[00:04:31] Erik Arbuthnot: The work is busy, but the uh, coming and going is quiet. All right, we've got the right code, so we can come on in.

[00:04:40] Julie: Okay, well thank you.

[00:04:42] Julie: Here at the FBI LA Division of West Covina you would have no idea that inside this quiet office building teams of FBI agents are fighting international violent crimes.

[00:04:52] Erik Arbuthnot: So yeah, there's five squads now in the RA, and so each area has their own group. This is the white collar squads right here, and then at the end of each squad is the supervisor's office, and then a secretary.

[00:05:08] Julie: Okay.

[00:05:08] Erik Arbuthnot: And then it starts all over again. Besides the kitchen, the breakroom is important. So then this is uh, the violent crime uh section. Our secretary, supervisor's office, and then all of our desks, and we're just down here on the end. Here's the conference room. And we're right in here.

[00:05:27] Julie: Great. All right, well thanks again so much, and we're just going to take a little bit to set up our gear, and uh, then we'll get this interview rolling.

[00:05:34] Erik Arbuthnot: Great.

[00:05:35] Julie: Great.

[00:05:35] Erik Arbuthnot: Thank you.

[00:05:37] Tech: Just basically as close as you can get to the mic is good, so like...

[00:05:40] Erik Arbuthnot: Wow, okay.

[00:05:41] Tech: As long as you're not like touching it, but yeah, don't be afraid to get too close and, and yeah.

[00:05:46] Julie: Erik, I want to start by asking you, why is a virtual scam part of the violent crimes unit? I mean after all, nobody really gets hurt, right?

[00:05:54] Erik Arbuthnot: A virtual kidnapping is a violent crime, and that's why the FBI agents who investigate virtual kidnappings are violent crime investigators. We work real kidnappings, and we work virtual kidnappings. The IRS Scam, the Nigerian Lottery Scam, the other types of ways of extorting money from people; the goal is to get money from you, but there's no threat. There's no violent threat. There's no fingers getting cut off, there's no, "I'm going to sell your daughter into human trafficking." All of those violent threats don't happen in the other schemes.

[00:06:27] Julie: Now the FBI started seriously looking into these virtual kidnappings in 2015, is that right?

[00:06:32] Erik Arbuthnot: Yes, so this investigation of virtual kidnappings that really took off in 2015, uh, with the calls that we, we traced across the country, and there were hundreds and thousands of phone calls, and thousands of dollars in ransom paid across the US. So the FBI opened the Operation Hotel Tango.

[00:06:55] Julie: Hotel Tango, what's that?

[00:06:56] Erik Arbuthnot: Yes, so Operation Hotel Tango, the HT stands for hostage taking. And this is the first time where we actually are able to make an arrest in a virtual kidnapping case.

[00:07:08] Julie: What happened after that?

[00:07:09] Erik Arbuthnot: The really big break in Hotel Tango was when a targeted uh suburb of Houston, called Oak Lawn, and what happened is they would call several victims, and they said, “How much money do you have right now that you can send?” And they had a victim say, “I have $25,000.” And they go, “You have $25,000 in cash right now that you can give me?” And the victim said, “Yes. I have $25,000 I'll give to you right now. How do you want to do it?”

[00:07:37] Julie: Typically these kidnappers ask their victims to send the money to Mexico, right? Why didn’t they just do that in this case?

[00:07:43] Erik Arbuthnot: So there’s, there’s millions and millions of dollars that go from the United States to Mexico legally every day, every year, you know, it's, it's a constant flow of money. A huge majority of it is totally illegal, but because of other crimes, you know like narcotics and other schemes, there's anti-money laundering rules that try to slow that down, try to identify, you know, are you making a, a legitimate $1000 payment to your family in Mexico, and you do this every month? Great, but if you're sending $50,000 to a cartel, the US government's going to stop that. And so there's certain rules that prevent people from, from immediately sending $25,000 in cash by wire across the border.

[00:08:29] Julie: So that really puts the virtual kidnapper in a bind, right? Because they can’t get someone to wire all that money in one day, but if they don’t get the victim to send it fast or quick enough, then the victim will soon catch on that this is really a scam, right?

[00:08:43] Erik Arbuthnot: They want that $25,000, that’s, that this whole purpose. So they change their MO. And they're going--, they tell the victim in Texas to drop the money in a trash can in Houston. And so he actually has a co-conspirator, um, Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, pick up the money in Houston out of the trash can. We had a great break in the case that the trash can they chose was at a elementary school that had a great video surveillance system. So she was actually caught on video driving up in her father's truck, um, getting out, going directly to the trash can, picking up the bag of money, getting back in the vehicle and driving away. We, in conjunction with the IRS, FBI, and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, we arrest Acosta and interview her. We come to find out that she’s working for prisoners in Mexico City.

[00:09:39] Julie: Were you surprised?

[00:09:41] Erik Arbuthnot: It was really an aha moment where the FBI goes, wow. The people making these phone calls all day, every day to the US are in prison in Mexico City. And they speak English, they speak English very well, um, and they're extorting US citizens over the telephone by literally saying they've kidnapped their son or daughter, and it's not the case. There's no kidnapping. She identifies uh, Brito Ramirez as the, the caller, the person who speaks English and is calling victims in the US and requesting um ransom money.

[00:10:21] Julie: Can we back up here just one minute? How are the prisoners getting cell phones, and what kind of prison call center are we talking about here?

[00:10:28] Erik Arbuthnot: Having a cell phone in prison is against the rules, so this is, this is contraband, and they use the smuggled in cell phones to make the uh, the phone calls. And originally, I had this sort of, have these pictures in your mind of, of, you know, like a boiler room in the prison where, you know, all the prisoners are, prisoners are gathered around, you know, making these phone calls, and it’s really not the case. They’re not in a special room. They’re sort of like in the hallways. They have headphones in and they’re dialing call after call after call, and literally phishing for what we call like the perfect storm where people answering the phone have a daughter who believe when that, when they heard the voice that that sounded like their daughter. It’s not their daughter, but they actually will recruit girlfriends, friends, relatives in the US that they will get, hey, I need you to scream and say, “Help me, Mommy! Help me, Mommy!” in English. They have that recording, and they’ll continue to play that all over and over and over for each phone call.

[00:11:36] Julie: Got it. Okay. So what can you tell me about Brito Ramirez then? I assume he’s the mastermind to this scam?

[00:11:42] Erik Arbuthnot: Yep. So, uh Brito Ramirez, um, was born in Mexico, and he came to the US as a child. And he goes to school in Houston, um, and that's where he learns to uh speak English. He begins to uh, commit crimes, and ultimately is arrested by the US and discovered that he's not actually a US citizen, um, and he gets deported to Mexico. And he continues his sort of life of crime when he gets to Mexico and ends up in prison in Mexico City. Um, he actually did some real kidnapping for ransoms in uh Mexico that leads him into, to the prison.

[00:12:22] Julie: And where did he get the idea to start calling people in the US with this scam?

[00:12:26] Erik Arbuthnot: When you look at virtual kidnappings 10 years ago, they were happening in the US in Spanish to Spanish speakers, ‘cause you had to target a Spanish speaker ‘cause he only spoke Spanish, right? So people like Brito Ramirez show up and they realize, hey, you speak English. And they realize, oh, he is a English speaker and guess what, now we don’t have to just call Spanish, you know, like East Los Angeles where we think like the 213 area code, where we're hoping to get a, someone on the line who speaks Spanish. We don't have to do that. Guess what we can do? We can call every person in the US, and in English, we can extort money from them using this, this scheme that's been around for over a decade.

[00:13:13] Julie: Hmm.

[00:13:13] Erik Arbuthnot: You don’t see people out of custody doing this, because it takes too much time for the results. So I wouldn’t say like this is a great crime for every criminal, but it’s a great crime for prisoners, because they have time. So if you look at the time and the money ratio, it’s not like this absolutely like successful crime, but if you consider I’m a prisoner and I’m not supposed to make any money at all, or do any crime at all, then yeah, I’m doing pretty good, because I make like $10,000 a month.

[00:13:46] Julie: Pretty lucrative.

[00:13:47] Erik Arbuthnot: Yes, for a prisoner.

[00:13:49] Julie: For a prisoner.

[00:13:50] Erik Arbuthnot: Yeah.

[00:13:50] Julie: You said earlier that originally these kidnappers were targeting wealthy area codes, but now it sounds like they’ve spread out to other areas?

[00:13:56] Erik Arbuthnot: Absolutely.

[00:13:57] Julie: Can you tell me more about that?

[00:13:58] Erik Arbuthnot: Anybody in the United States, all of the English speakers, Spanish speakers, literally anyone in the United States could be a victim of this uh crime.

[00:14:10] Julie: Do you have any idea how many victims are out there?

[00:14:12] Erik Arbuthnot: We know it’s thousands of phone calls, but we really want to know like, you know, how many people are getting these, these uh calls. This is um, an unreported crime, especially if they don’t make a payment. A lot of law enforcement agencies will not take a report because number one, it’s an international crime, there’s, there’s nobody here that they can touch, and, and there is a misunderstanding that you didn’t lose any money, so, get over it. What the FBI’s recognized is no, these, these victims have been traumatized, that they really believed, even if it was only for an hour, that their son or daughter was kidnapped. There was one couple whose son was away at college, um, and they uh got the phone call, they made the payment, and then after they made the payment, they couldn’t get a hold of their son. They said, he was away at college. He was actually at some, like a summer pool party, and so they couldn’t get a hold of him even after they paid their ransom, and they had this sinking feeling, you know what, they’ve killed him. And they actually went to the neighborhood park and they started going through the dumpsters looking for his body.

[00:15:26] Julie: Oh my gosh.

[00:15:26] Erik Arbuthnot: And even after their son was home and safe, they were still traumatized to the point where they thought this Mexican cartel was going to still come get them, and wanted more money even after they had their son back, they were still traumatized, um, and still they’re different people today when you talk to them.

[00:15:48] Julie: Oh my gosh. Now, going back to the case of Brito Ramirez and Yannette Acosta, what happened to them?

[00:15:54] Erik Arbuthnot: She actually, she pled guilty in the case, and um, was sentenced to 88 months in federal prison. So she’s currently serving her uh federal sentence for this.

[00:16:05] Julie: And then Brito Ramirez was indicted. So what sort of difference do you think this will ever make?

[00:16:09] Erik Arbuthnot: The FBI knows that we are not going to prosecute our way out of telephone extortion schemes, um, out of virtual kidnapping calls; that we really need to get the word out to the public and let everybody know to be, you know, super vigilant when they answer the phone and recognize what a virtual kidnapping is and what to do when you, when you get a call like this.

[00:16:34] Julie: And that’s why we’re profiling this scam on the podcast. This has been really eye-opening, thank you so much Erik.

[00:16:39] Erik Arbuthnot: Thank you.

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[00:16:43] Julie: My next guest is also very involved in the FBI’s kidnapping program. I’m here now with Special Agent Scott Abagnale who is the Unit Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiations Unit. He’s also the son of my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Scott, welcome, it’s good to have you on the show.

[00:17:00] Scott Abagnale: Thank you very much, Julie, my pleasure.

[00:17:01] Julie: Scott, before we dive into the details of how the FBI handles kidnappings in the US and abroad, can you please share a bit about your background? How long have you been working for the FBI?

[00:17:10] Scott Abagnale: I’ve been with the FBI for a little over 14 years now, and, and prior to that I was an attorney. I was always interested in working for the FBI and so when I had the opportunity, uh, I was more than willing to take it.

[00:17:21] Julie: You said that you, uh you’re very interested in negotiations. Can I ask why? What about negotiations is so interesting for you?

[00:17:28] Scott Abagnale: Uh, negotiations both uh crisis negotiations and the context of hostage negotiations and folks that are in barricades, um, as well as kidnappings, uh are just in a very vulnerable position, and they need uh cool-headed people to help resolve those situations. And I just very much wanted to be able to play a part in that, um, in helping those people come out safely, helping those people be reunited with their families, um, and so for those reasons it appealed to me very early on, to get involved in the negotiation program.

[00:17:55] Julie: So tell us about kidnappings for ransom in the US. How often and why do they happen?

[00:18:02] Scott Abagnale: So thankfully, kidnappings for ransom inside the United States, uh that would involve an FBI response are relatively rare. Most of our kidnappings are international kidnappings, and they come from US persons and lawful permanent residents, visiting parts of the world that are dangerous and sometimes uh they're familiar to them, are nevertheless dangerous for them to be present, and they expose themselves in a way that gets them kidnapped. It's a very lucrative business, uh it's uh able to turn over a good deal of money and in most cases, people come out alive, um, and so for kidnappers, um, it's worth the risk of getting caught, uh to be able to capture people, hold them against their will, uh and ransom them back to their families.

[00:18:43] Julie: Really. Wow. And this is open to just more than Mexico? Are there other countries as well?

[00:18:48] Scott Abagnale: Certainly. Uh, Mexico is where we get most of our kidnappings here in the United States, but other countries in the past and present have included Haiti, the Philippines, Nigeria, um, and really there's no country in the world where you're completely immune from uh risk of kidnapping. Um, but very frequently there are groups that specialize in kidnapping as their primary means of generating income for themselves.

[00:19:09] Julie: Okay. Are we seeing an increase or decrease year after year in the number of kidnappings that are happening abroad?

[00:19:15] Scott Abagnale: It fluctuates, but in the past couple years, it’s been about 100 kidnappings, uh international kidnappings, uh affecting uh US persons where the FBI’s gotten involved. I think what’s important to note about that though is that we suspect the number’s much higher because we know um, anecdotally and from contacts in the private sector, uh that other folks are kidnapped, uh ransoms are paid, and no one ever notifies the FBI that that’s occurred.

[00:19:38] Julie: So they handle it without including the government, they’ll do it privately.

[00:19:42] Scott Abagnale: Correct.

[00:19:43] Julie: Got it. When are you called in?

[00:19:45] Scott Abagnale: As early as possible. And unfortunately, depending on how the kidnapping gets reported, it may take time to get uh to the FBI. For example, if someone goes into the Embassy um, somebody in the Embassy has to vet it, take in the complaint, then it will quickly turn around and provide it over to the FBI and to other folks who'd be able to assist in resolving the kidnapping, but as soon as possible, we try to get negotiators directly engaged with the family at their discretion. They don't have to take our assistance if they don't wish, um, but to make us available to provide them negotiation strategies and support.

[00:20:15] Julie: Okay. Would you say that the, for lack of better terms, kidnapping industry, how would you want me to say that? Kidnapping industry...

[00:20:23] Scott Abagnale: Kidnapping industry’s probably a fair term unfortunately.

[00:20:25] Julie: Okay, okay. I mean would you say that the kidnapping industry has evolved over the past 20, 30 years, and if so, in what ways?

[00:20:33] Scott Abagnale: It certainly has evolved, uh, kidnapping's one of the probably oldest professions uh of course in the world one could have, but it's developed mostly in technology. Criminals are able to utilize uh the internet as well as different secure communications to obfuscate where they're operating from, um and how they're conducting their business, which certainly makes it much more difficult, uh to be able to locate or capture them.

[00:20:54] Julie: Yeah. Now, if I get a call and somebody says, "I have your son," and I hear someone screaming in the background and it sounds like my son, how am I supposed to know whether this is a virtual kidnapping scam or a real kidnapping?

[00:21:05] Scott Abagnale: That’s an excellent question. So what we're always trying to establish in kidnapping negotiations is proof of life, which is really timely evidence that the person that's allegedly been kidnapped is alive and well. Um, and the way we best like to get that is through some sort of video exchange in this day and age. If we could get someone, for example, on a social platform, communicating with us directly saying yes, this is when I was taken, this is what's happened, that would be ideal. We certainly can't always get that, um, so we do look at other things like meaningful communications, um, on the phone, um, photographs that we don't feel have been doctored or tampered with, but often kidnappers will, particularly virtual kidnappers, will try to employ some sort of ruse to suggest that they do, in fact, have your loved one. And that can include things like someone screaming in the background which, when people are in stress, if you, you may very well believe is your loved one, though it's not. It's one of the fe--, kidnapper's associates, um, but in addition to that, we also see a variety of other uh means in which kidnappers, or virtual kidnappers, uh try to demonstrate proof of life um, without actually putting you in touch with your loved one. It's very important that you have someone like uh the FBI there to assess what's being presented as evidence of your loved one's capture, um, and we can try to give you our best guidance on what we believe is either sufficient or insufficient in what's been provided. So there's really two different kind of what we consider versions of virtual kidnappings, but within them, there's nuances.

[00:22:35] Julie: Oh, okay, can you share with me what the two different kinds are?

[00:22:37] Scott Abagnale: Um, so the first version of the virtual kidnapping is really basic, you know, someone's either trolling through social media, they may be looking through a phone book, and then calling people; sometimes with a little, sometimes with really with no information about them whatsoever and attempting to generate fear, and then use that fear to extort them by suggesting they’ve captured uh a child or a wife or what have you, um, and in fact, they don't really know much about the person at all. And they hope that by very quickly generating fear, making a demand that's fairly reasonable to pay, you know, two or three thousand dollars, um, and then also willing to come down very quickly to get that payment, you will have a virtual kidnapping then resolve itself within maybe an hour or less, right. That's the real basic version of the virtual kidnapping scam, but the evolution of it has become far more sophisticated where we do have individuals who, because they really are traveling, say in Mexico, um, and because the virtual kidnapper has been able to identify that, maybe through social media, um, maybe through someone working in a hotel, um, who feeds them tips about Americans visiting the hotel, they're able to collect information about that person, then contact them and say something to the effect of, "I understand you're staying in this location, let me explain what's going to happen. If you are to leave, you'll be killed. Uh if you call anyone from your phone, we'll know. Um, all you're going to do is answer my calls and stay in your room until I tell you you're free to leave." They will then try to elicit information from them about themselves, what they're doing there, why they're there, try to get some information that would be very hard to maybe find otherwise, like through social media or friends, and then they will use that information when they contact your family to say, “I have your loved one, this is who they are, this is what they were doing,” throw out some information that was unique to that exchange to generate that fear, and then set out a price. And often, now, we're seeing in these more sophisticated virtual kidnappings, tens of thousands of dollars are being asked, very much like what you’d see in a traditional kidnapping. Now, they will often come down very quickly to try to secure some kind of payment, because they know that as in a traditional virtual kidnapping, the longer this process goes, the more likely, you know, the person in the hotel's going to become suspicious and say, forget this. I'm going to go out and try to get help, um, or the family may find some other way to communicate with that person. But this sort of more sophisticated virtual kidnapping can go for two or three days like a traditional kidnapping. In addition to that, they will use proof of life in, in a more sophisticated manner. For example, they will take photographs of people by, in a case where say two people have been kidnapped, they'll have them photograph each other, their hands behind their back perhaps looking in distress uh, and then send that out to the families to try to demonstrate that hey, we do, in fact, have this person uh in our possession. Um, and in cases where multiple people have been kidnapped, um, that aren’t related, they may actually try to run two scams at the same time so that one family is seeing images that are their loved one, while the other family is seeing images of their loved one, and both families have no knowledge that these individuals are even together in this, uh as victims of this scam.

[00:25:48] Julie: Wow. Do you see that often?

[00:25:51] Scott Abagnale: Unfortunately yes. Um, it, but we basically, we saw an increase in virtual kidnappings from 26 to 52 uh over the course of the last couple of years.

[00:26:01] Julie: Wow. Doubling.

[00:26:03] Scott Abagnale: So, I think the scam will definitely increase over time. We've seen it increase to date, um, and as technology only makes things more simple and easy to encrypt and mask where calls are coming from, where people are located, it stands to reason that this will continue to be a, a scam people take advantage of. Um, in its simplest form, you can make a good deal of money over only a few hours. Um, in its more complex form you can make a really large sum of money uh over a few days. And in addition to that, while most of these have originated out of Mexico over the past five years, I would suspect that over time other countries, uh criminal elements where they feel they can get away with this will take advantage of that, and we're likely to see places that we hadn't previously seen uh using these scams, uh in targeting Americans as well.

[00:26:52] Julie: Okay, so what should people do if they believe someone they know has been kidnapped? Virtual or not virtual?

[00:26:57] Scott Abagnale: If someone believes that their loved one's been kidnapped, um, whether or no it's a kidnapping or a virtual kidnapping, they should try to get down as much information about what the perpetrator is claiming has occurred. They should ensure they do not make a payment to this person quickly uh, without having consultation with the FBI. The reason for that is because so many of these are just scams and not, in fact, kidnappings. Where the reality is, if someone truly has been kidnapped, unfortunately you are likely going to have to pay something to get that person released. But in the case of virtual kidnappings, you're really just feeding a scammer, uh, and becoming a victim, and in fact, there is no risk at all to your loved one in this situations. So withholding payment, collecting what information you can, and then contacting the FBI for assistance, is your best steps forward early on. Additionally, we recommend that if someone thinks someone's been kidnapped, uh particularly if their family is receiving calls, uh as well, that they consolidate who is going to be that spokesperson for the family. We don't want to see two or three different people in a family or in a group of friends all having different communications with a kidnapper or a suspected kidnapper.

[00:28:07] Julie: So tell me about reporting. We hear so often that people don’t report being scammed. Are you seeing this in virtual kidnapping scams as well?

[00:28:13] Scott Abagnale: We believe we really are only hearing a fraction of what’s really occurring, um, in the scheme of both the more simplistic and the more complex virtual kidnappings, because we know many of them just simply don't get reported, which is why we actually encourage people even if you have uncovered that it was a scam quickly, uh take the time to contact the FBI, um, at TIPS.FBI.gov and report it, um, so that we're able to actually take that into account and include it in our numbers and in our assessment of what's occurring and what trends are emerging, uh out in, in the wide world.

[00:28:46] Julie: Got it. Well, Scott, thanks so much for being on this show today. It's such a pleasure to have you.

[00:28:51] Scott Abagnale: Thank you very much, Julie, my pleasure.

[00:28:53] Julie: With this said, I want to bring back my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Frank, how do you think Scott did? This is his first time on a podcast.

[00:28:59] Frank Abagnale: I thought he did a fantastic job, but I knew he would.

[00:29:02] Julie: Okay.

[00:29:04] Frank Abagnale: I didn’t know he had such a great radio voice though.

[00:29:06] Julie: I know, right. These really great dynamic microphones, it really makes a difference. Well, it really is a pleasure to have you both here in the studio with us today. It's certainly a very unique and special episode as it’s the first time you’ve ever worked together. Have you guys ever wanted to work together?

[00:29:21] Scott Abagnale: It would be neat if we had a reason to, I suppose, but we haven’t, we really haven’t. Um, and uh, this is, I mean, the first time we’ve even done an interview together, uh about a shared topic we have uh expertise in.

[00:29:33] Julie: Well, I know our listeners would love to learn more about you both, so is it okay if we take a walk through memory lane?

[00:29:37] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:29:38] Julie: Great. Let’s do it. All right. How many kids are in the Abagnale family?

[00:29:42] Frank Abagnale: Three boys.

[00:29:43] Julie: Three boys. And where do you fall in line?

[00:29:45] Frank Abagnale: He’s the oldest.

[00:29:46] Scott Abagnale: The oldest.

[00:29:46] Julie: You're the oldest, okay. Scott, when did you first learn about your father’s past, and how did he explain it to you?

[00:29:52] Scott Abagnale: I was probably about 10, I think, when I first started hearing about it, and I heard about it from kids at school actually. Well, honestly kids were being really uh, disrespectful about it, um, so yeah, it was basically like getting teased, um, in the schoolyard.

[00:30:07] Julie: Ah.

[00:30:07] Scott Abagnale: But uh, in the scheme of things, that never really impacted me. I’ve never thought uh I had anything to be ashamed of, nor did my dad, given uh what all he went through to get to where he was at the point, I was a 10-year-old so.

[00:30:19] Julie: Yeah. Um, and then once you found out, did you share with your younger brothers?

[00:30:23] Scott Abagnale: No, I didn’t. And I'm not sure, they probably had their own stories about how they heard about it. No, I don't recall sharing it with them in any way.

[00:30:29] Julie: So you came home from school. Did you talk to your dad about it? And what did he say?

[00:30:32] Scott Abagnale: Oh yeah. No, oh, he sat me down and explained where it was coming from. He was very matter of fact.

[00:30:36] Julie: Yeah. I remember one time your father was sharing with me, um in the green room about a time when he took you to the FBI Academy, and it's when you first expressed interest that you wanted to be an FBI agent. Is that, is that right? Can you tell, can you share that sto--, story with us?

[00:30:53] Scott Abagnale: Yeah, I was uh, I was probably about 12, and uh I had been interested in, in law enforcement like a lot of kids are, um, I think, um, but uh, I started to really get enamored with it when I was about 12 years old and it never, never left.

[00:31:09] Julie: And what did you like most about it?

[00:31:10] Scott Abagnale: I think it just appealed to me that it was an incredible blend of serving your country, serving what I consider to be the most just legal system in the world, um, help and protect the uh innocent um, from harm. It just had all the things that I guess appealed to my nature in one place.

[00:31:27] Julie: Frank, is this how you remember it?

[00:31:28] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, he, uh, he told me that, he, he said, "You know, Dad, that's what I'd like to be is an FBI agent." And um, you know at first like any dad you say, "Oh, that's great, son," you know. And I thought he'd eventually lose interest, but when he graduated from high school, he said, "You know, I'd really like to be a, an FBI agent." So I said, "Well, you know, son, you have to go to college." And so he went to college and I thought during college he would change his mind. And when he graduated from college he said, "You know, I really want to be an FBI agent." So I said to him, "You know you can get three years of work experience, or you could go to law school or accounting classes, and get a CPA license. It may help you get in." I explained to him it was very difficult. Back then the FBI was taking one in every 10,000 applicants. That was extremely difficult. I always let him know that to get in, and of course, I always was aware of my background, and I thought to myself, you know, the FBI could look at this in two ways. They could say, well his dad's done a lot for us, maybe we should look at his son. Or the FBI could say, no, I don't want his son to be an FBI agent, but of course that's not the way it works. It's always based on your own merits and who you are. So he went to Loyola School of Law in Chicago, he excelled there in law school, and of course the, the Bureau requires you pass the bar. He passed the bar in Illinois, and then he went through the year long process of applying to the FBI. And I was always worried that he'd be turned down, so I would remind him, you know, there are other agencies that you can look at, and maybe think about, but he was very much set his mind on FBI. So every year my wife would have a Christmas party for the agents in Oklahoma, and their wives and children, and the SAC would come, the Special Agent in Charge and the Assistant Agent in Charge, and he would talk to them and talk to the other agents about this is what I want to do, and he would get discouraged because the SAC might have said, “Well, you know, my son applied but they turned him down.” So he'd come back to me and say, "You know, Dad, if they turned the SAC's son down, how am I going to get in?" I said, "Son, it's all based on you and, and your merits and um, as I mentioned to you before, in my um, I'm 71 years old, there has nothing that's happened in my life, and there will be nothing that will happen in my life that was greater than seeing my son become an FBI agent, or more amazing that someone from my background would bring a child into the world, and that child turn around and become an FBI agent, which tells you that we live in a great country where you are judged by you, not by your parents or your associates, and so I'm very, very proud. And you know, I've had the opportunity to teach at the Academy for almost four decades, up to two generations of agents. I taught Scott's class when he went through the Academy. It's an amazing group of men and women who are dedicated to their country, their family, uh their love of justice, and um, there's nothing more proud than for a dad to have a son who is in, in the FBI.

[00:34:26] Julie: Yeah, I can tell you're very, very proud. How does it make you feel to hear your dad talk about you like this?

[00:34:30] Scott Abagnale: It's obviously really makes you feel good. It also uh never stops being embarrassing. Um, but uh, but uh, but it is certainly uh, you know a great place of pride for myself to make him proud of me, so.

[00:34:40] Julie: Yeah, and your mother's very proud of you as well.

[00:34:42] Scott Abagnale: Absolutely, yeah. I mean I think it's well understood I have the best mom in the world.

[00:34:46] Julie: I’m trying to envision, you know, around the dinner table at the Abagnale house when you guys are kids, so you guys weren’t talking about white collar crime.

[00:34:52] Scott Abagnale: No.

(chuckles)

[00:34:56] Frank Abagnale: You know, for most of Scott’s career he was uh in counterintelligence and so obviously very top secret stuff, so he never discusses any of those things uh with me or would I would have wanted him uh to.

[00:35:07] Julie: Okay, so we know what Scott does. What does, what do the other, the other boys do?

[00:35:12] Frank Abagnale: Um, my middle son, Christopher and his wife, own a, a own uh stores, a couple of stores in Charleston that deal with young girls' clothing. They've had it for about 10 years and they do very well with it. And my youngest son uh Sean, develops video games for a major gaming company, and he's currently working as a senior producer on a game called "Doom" which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so he's working on the 25th anniversary edition of, of "Doom."

[00:35:38] Julie: Nice. Nice, very successful.

[00:35:40] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.

[00:35:41] Julie: Successful boys. Um, anybody else in the family going to be FBI agents?

[00:35:45] Frank Abagnale: You never know, maybe one of Scott's children will be in it.

[00:35:49] Scott Abagnale: Yeah, you never know. Um, my kids uh certainly talk about it at times, but none of the three of them are, I think, committed yet, uh to any one path.

[00:35:58] Julie: Sure.

[00:35:59] Scott Abagnale: I'd certainly be as thrilled as I think my dad was, as I was if one of them does go that way, but uh, in my mind, as long as they're happy then I'll be happy.

[00:36:07] Julie: Uh-huh. Frank you taught Scott’s class at the FBI.

[00:36:12] Frank Abagnale: Academy.

[00:36:13] Julie: Academy. Tell me what that was like to have Scott in the classroom?

[00:36:16] Frank Abagnale: Well what was interesting is that first I got a call from Scott that said, "I've been asked if I had a problem with you teaching my class." And I said, "Well do you?" And he said, "No, I told them that wasn't a problem." And then I got a call saying, if I had a problem teaching the class that Scott was in, and I said, "No, I don't have a problem doing that." So uh that was kind of humorous to me that they both checked with both of us about uh teaching the class. At the time the Assistant Deputy Director in charge of the Academy uh basically, I had worked with for many, many years while he was back when he was an agent. He was unaware that Scott was in the Academy, so when he came in to talk to Scott's class, he asked Scott, uh to get up his name, and he said, "Scott Abagnale," so he said to him, "Oh, Abagnale. You know have a name of a very famous uh, gentleman," and Scott said, "No, that's my dad." So he, so there have been a lot of curious things that have happened over the years, because it's such an unusual name, uh so people put two and two together. And I think Scott goes through the same thing uh that I go through all the time. So if he's going through TSA, and he shows his credentials, they'll say to him, "Oh, you know, you’ve got the name of that famous uh guy," and he of course, Scott goes, "Yeah, I get that all the time." But sometimes they kind of know and so they keep trying to push you and go, "Wait, you know, I think I heard his son's an FBI..." yeah, it's just amazing. But my favorite is my youngest son who said to me when he was in college, I asked him, "Do you have a lot of problems with people recognizing your name?" He said, "Yeah, they ask me all these questions." "So what do you usually say?" "Well, a lot of times I tell them I don't know you, and then sometimes I tell them that you’re an uncle of mine, but I never met you. But if it's a pretty girl, I tell them you're my dad."

[00:38:03] Julie: Ah... smooth, smooth. So what kind of grade did you give Scott in class?

[00:38:08] Frank Abagnale: I didn't have anything to do with his grades, but I basically hoped he, he learned some things with the rest of his agents.

[00:38:16] Julie: Good.

[00:38:17] Frank Abagnale: I remember, it was a few years ago, I went down to the FBI Field Office in Jacksonville to make a presentation and the SAC was a woman who was the Special Agent in Charge, and she said to me, "Before you leave today, one of our agents would like to speak with you, and I'll bring you to her cubby." And I said, "Okay, great." So when it was over, she brought me over, and it was a woman probably in her 40s, and she said to me, "I just wanted to tell you a quick uh story. I, I met your son because I was one of the three agents who interviewed him during his process of going through the year of background checks, etc. I had no idea who his father was, but after having interviewed him, I turned to the other two agents and said, 'that, if there ever was an FBI material, that's it.' And so the other agent said, 'Well you know who his dad is, right?'" She said, "No." And then she explained. She said, "I didn't know that, but I picked him, and I just wanted you to know that." And I think the recruiting agent in Oklahoma City told me years later that, "I was very impressed with Scott because I realized he could be anything he wants to be. He could go on to law and practice and be very successful at it. I knew he really, truly was someone who was joining the FBI to be in the FBI as a career, not just to go in the FBI for several years and then move on to something else." And I get great reports. I get to go out to a lot of the field offices around the country and people that have worked with Scott, given me great feedback, so I'm obviously very, very proud.

[00:39:47] Julie: But what is that like, always getting stopped to have a name? The Abagnale name?

[00:39:51] Scott Abagnale: Oh it just, it's something you grow up with, so it doesn't really, it doesn't bother me. It certainly doesn't. Um I don’t have a problem with people asking questions, um, it's easy to brag about him, so it's a, it's just something you grow up with and you get used to, and you don't think that much about.

[00:40:04] Julie: Yeah.

[00:40:04] Frank Abagnale: It's amazing that people recognize me more by name than picture. I can't even start to spell my name and they go, oh, "You're not the guy they made the movie about?" I think that's because Steven Spielberg made such emphasis about the name, he kept putting it on the, on the chalkboard, Abagnale, not Abignoale, not Abigail, Abagnale, and so I think people, and being an unusual name, people recognize it a lot.

[00:40:27] Julie: Yeah. Catch Me If You Can. When the film, the premiere, were you, did you get to go to Hollywood? Did you get to participate at all in any of the screenings, and what was, what was that kind of that chapter of your life like?

[00:40:40] Scott Abagnale: Yeah, I did. I was in uh law school at the time when it was being made, and then came out. It was kind of remarkable just because growing up, it had always been something someone was somewhere working on, um, and I think by the time it finally had come out, most of us had kind of uh, had kind of figured, oh, okay, well, you know, we'll see how it goes. Um, but um, but it was entertaining. Yeah, we were able to uh go out and see a lot of the film being made, and um, both uh Steven Spielberg and all the actors involved were very gracious, very welcoming, um, and so it was, it was an entertaining experience.

[00:41:10] Frank Abagnale: And, and Tom Hanks sent Scott a great handwritten note when he graduated from the Academy.

[00:41:15] Scott Abagnale: He did.

[00:41:15] Julie: Aw, nice. Do you remember what it said?

[00:41:18] Scott Abagnale: Um, it, it was very, it was short, but very uh it was funny. He, he basically commented like, "What? Scott's in the FBI now." You know and it was very congratulatory. It was very kind.

[00:41:29] Frank Abagnale: He, he told him it came from his glamorous portrayal of the agent.

[00:41:34] Julie: That's so great, that's so great. Um, okay, so I think um, if it's okay with you guys, can we transition to five surprising facts about Scott's dad.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:41:50] Julie: Do you want to do it?

[00:41:51] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, Scott knows what (inaudible).

[00:41:53] Scott Abagnale: I don't know if there are five surprising ones. Yeah, I was trying to think about this actually a little bit last night. I'm not sure if I would be able to come up with five.

[00:42:00] Julie: Okay, if you can't come up with five, can you come up with three?

[00:42:03] Scott Abagnale: I would say I can probably come up with three.

[00:42:06] Julie: Okay, do we need to phone in your mom?

[00:42:07] Scott Abagnale: No, no she would be...

[00:42:08] Julie: Or your brothers?

[00:42:09] Scott Abagnale: ... she won't want to contribute. Um, so I, I think first and foremost, uh may be surprising is that uh if you don't know who my dad is, and he's in a, in a social situation, you probably wouldn't guess it, because he's very uh he's very calm, very quiet. Um, he's not what I think a lot of people expect, which would be a very boisterous kind of commanding the room sort of presence, um, in, in a social setting. He, he's very quiet, very engaging, but very quiet. I think, I guess another thing uh that might be interesting about him is probably his uh, his favorite movies are comedies, um, absolutely. Probably Love Actually, still, your favorite?

[00:42:43] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.

[00:42:44] Scott Abagnale: Um, and uh and then lastly, I would say is just that uh, all growing up, we’d, we’d get to travel quite a bit, and whenever we’d travel, there was only one place he really wanted to be, which was back home on the couch relaxed. Um, with all the traveling he did, um, it may come as a surpr--, it may or may not, I suppose, come as a surprise, but that uh there’s nowhere he would rather be than, that at home with my mom, um, you know, and able to take a break.

[00:43:08] Julie: Yeah.

[00:43:08] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:43:09] Julie: That’s great. So really your favorite film is Love Actually.

[00:43:13] Frank Abagnale: I’m a romantic at heart, so I like very romantic uh, comedies, so yeah, that’s true.

[00:43:18] Julie: Yeah, good, okay. Well, you guys, this is all so great. Thank you for being here at AARP Studios doing your first ever interview together on The Perfect Scam Podcast. This has been a lot of fun. Anything else you guys want to add?

[00:43:31] Scott Abagnale: Just thank you very much.

[00:43:32] Frank Abagnale: Thanks for having us.

[00:43:33] Julie: Of course, thank you.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:43:36] Julie: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters, Producer Brook Ellis, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Julie Getz.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

END OF TRANSCRIP    (MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:00] Julie: This week on AARP's The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] It was really an aha moment where the FBI goes, wow, the people making these phone calls all day, every day to the US are in prison in Mexico City, and they speak English, they speak English very well, um, and they're extorting US citizens over the telephone by literally saying they've kidnapped their son or daughter.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:31] Julie: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm Julie Getz and with me today is, of course, our AARP Ambassador and Fraud Expert Frank Abagnale. Frank, it's always so good to see you.

[00:00:41] Frank Abagnale: Great to be with you Julie, thank you.

[00:00:42] Julie: Good. Frank, in the last episode we were talking about virtual kidnappings, when a scammer pretends to hold someone hostage to convince their victims to pay a ransom in exchange for their loved one's release. In this episode, we're going to learn more about what law enforcement is doing to crack down on these types of crimes. We also have a special guest, someone that you know quite well, right?

[00:01:03] Frank Abagnale: Yes.

[00:01:04] Julie: That's your son, Scott, who is the Unit Chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiations Unit. I'm excited to speak with the two of you together and hear some stories about your family.

[00:01:14] Frank Abagnale: That'll be great.

[00:01:15] Julie: Great. Okay, so last week we heard the story of a woman who almost was a victim of one of these virtual kidnapping scams when someone called to say that her daughter had been abducted and was being held for ransom.

[00:01:28] Kathie Gross: It was the worst fear and panic that I have ever felt. How long is too long to be thinking that your child is in a van speeding away from you and in harm's way?

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:01:42] Julie: The call catches Kathie off guard. It sounds like her daughter Jordan who she dropped off just an hour before.

[00:01:48] Kathie Gross: What I heard next was just, you know, insanity. "Mom, mom?" You know, just are you there? And then I said, "Oh my God, Jordan, where are you?" "I don't know. I think I'm on the freeway. There are no windows." All this time I'm thinking, this is her.

[00:02:08] Julie: That was Kathie Gross, and what she describes as the most terrifying experience of her life. Fortunately, Kathie's daughter was never kidnapped, and since that call one year ago, Kathie's been sharing her story in order to teach others how to best recognize red flags if they receive a similar call. Frank, are there other versions of this virtual kidnapping scam that people should look out for?

[00:02:30] Frank Abagnale: I think we mentioned once before in the case of a gentleman who went down to Mexico, checked into his hotel, and was told by the front clerk, uh you have uh been this number, X number of guests of checking into the hotel, so you've won a complete day out on a fishing excursion, and um everything's paid for. It's tomorrow morning. All you have to do is be ready at 6 a.m. You'll be out till 6 p.m., and the guy says, "Wow, that's amazing." And, of course, that was all part of the scam. The guy got on a boat. He had no cell access. As soon as he was out far enough from shore, they called the wife, said they had kidnapped him, they needed to be paid immediately. She frantically tried calling him. She called the hotel; he wasn't in the room. She couldn't reach him. And basically turned around and paid a ransom and wired the money. And the husband got back at 6 o'clock. He calls her, and she goes, "Are you okay? You know, I got this call." He said, "No, I've been out on this fishing excursion." And it turned out the police realized the guy at the hotel was in with this group of people who were doing these virtual kidnappings.

[00:03:31] Julie: Unfortunately that's why this scam is so successful. Victims are in such a state of fear that they'll do anything to protect their loved ones.

[00:03:39] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:03:40] Julie: So, we'll talk more about this later. In, in the meantime, I'm going to speak with Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot. He's part of the International Violent Crimes Unit in the Los Angeles Division of the FBI. I flew out to visit Erik at their offices. Joining him was the Bureau's Public Information Officer Rukelt Dalberis.

[00:03:57] Julie: Hi, Erik, Julie Getz.

[00:03:59] Erik Arbuthnot: Hi, nice to meet you. Welcome, welcome to the FBI.

[00:04:01] Julie: Hi, thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:04:02] Erik Arbuthnot: Nice to meet you.

[00:04:02] Julie: Rukelt.

[00:04:02] Rukelt Dalberis: Julie, nice to meet you, pleasure.

[00:04:04] Julie: Nice to meet you. Thanks for having uh, The Perfect Scam Podcast here at FBI in West Covina. Is that right?

[00:04:11] Erik Arbuthnot: Yep.

[00:04:12] Julie: Thanks so much. All right.

[00:04:13] Erik Arbuthnot: LA Division.

[00:04:14] Julie: LA Division.

[00:04:15] Erik Arbuthnot: But, but uh this is the West Covina RA.

[00:04:17] Julie: Great.

[00:04:18] Erik Arbuthnot: Yeah.

[00:04:18] Julie: Well, thanks so much. Do you mind if we go inside?

[00:04:19] Erik Arbuthnot: Yeah, come on in.

[00:04:20] Julie: Great, cool.

[00:04:22] Erik Arbuthnot: Thank you.

(walking into building)

[00:04:30] Julie: So, is it busy here?

[00:04:31] Erik Arbuthnot: The work is busy, but the uh, coming and going is quiet. All right, we've got the right code, so we can come on in.

[00:04:40] Julie: Okay, well thank you.

[00:04:42] Julie: Here at the FBI LA Division of West Covina you would have no idea that inside this quiet office building teams of FBI agents are fighting international violent crimes.

[00:04:52] Erik Arbuthnot: So yeah, there's five squads now in the RA, and so each area has their own group. This is the white collar squads right here, and then at the end of each squad is the supervisor's office, and then a secretary.

[00:05:08] Julie: Okay.

[00:05:08] Erik Arbuthnot: And then it starts all over again. Besides the kitchen, the breakroom is important. So then this is uh, the violent crime uh section. Our secretary, supervisor's office, and then all of our desks, and we're just down here on the end. Here's the conference room. And we're right in here.

[00:05:27] Julie: Great. All right, well thanks again so much, and we're just going to take a little bit to set up our gear, and uh, then we'll get this interview rolling.

[00:05:34] Erik Arbuthnot: Great.

[00:05:35] Julie: Great.

[00:05:35] Erik Arbuthnot: Thank you.

[00:05:37] Tech: Just basically as close as you can get to the mic is good, so like...

[00:05:40] Erik Arbuthnot: Wow, okay.

[00:05:41] Tech: As long as you're not like touching it, but yeah, don't be afraid to get too close and, and yeah.

[00:05:46] Julie: Erik, I want to start by asking you, why is a virtual scam part of the violent crimes unit? I mean after all, nobody really gets hurt, right?

[00:05:54] Erik Arbuthnot: A virtual kidnapping is a violent crime, and that's why the FBI agents who investigate virtual kidnappings are violent crime investigators. We work real kidnappings, and we work virtual kidnappings. The IRS Scam, the Nigerian Lottery Scam, the other types of ways of extorting money from people; the goal is to get money from you, but there's no threat. There's no violent threat. There's no fingers getting cut off, there's no, "I'm going to sell your daughter into human trafficking." All of those violent threats don't happen in the other schemes.

[00:06:27] Julie: Now the FBI started seriously looking into these virtual kidnappings in 2015, is that right?

[00:06:32] Erik Arbuthnot: Yes, so this investigation of virtual kidnappings that really took off in 2015, uh, with the calls that we, we traced across the country, and there were hundreds and thousands of phone calls, and thousands of dollars in ransom paid across the US. So the FBI opened the Operation Hotel Tango.

[00:06:55] Julie: Hotel Tango, what's that?

[00:06:56] Erik Arbuthnot: Yes, so Operation Hotel Tango, the HT stands for hostage taking. And this is the first time where we actually are able to make an arrest in a virtual kidnapping case.

[00:07:08] Julie: What happened after that?

[00:07:09] Erik Arbuthnot: The really big break in Hotel Tango was when a targeted uh suburb of Houston, called Oak Lawn, and what happened is they would call several victims, and they said, “How much money do you have right now that you can send?” And they had a victim say, “I have $25,000.” And they go, “You have $25,000 in cash right now that you can give me?” And the victim said, “Yes. I have $25,000 I'll give to you right now. How do you want to do it?”

[00:07:37] Julie: Typically these kidnappers ask their victims to send the money to Mexico, right? Why didn’t they just do that in this case?

[00:07:43] Erik Arbuthnot: So there’s, there’s millions and millions of dollars that go from the United States to Mexico legally every day, every year, you know, it's, it's a constant flow of money. A huge majority of it is totally illegal, but because of other crimes, you know like narcotics and other schemes, there's anti-money laundering rules that try to slow that down, try to identify, you know, are you making a, a legitimate $1000 payment to your family in Mexico, and you do this every month? Great, but if you're sending $50,000 to a cartel, the US government's going to stop that. And so there's certain rules that prevent people from, from immediately sending $25,000 in cash by wire across the border.

[00:08:29] Julie: So that really puts the virtual kidnapper in a bind, right? Because they can’t get someone to wire all that money in one day, but if they don’t get the victim to send it fast or quick enough, then the victim will soon catch on that this is really a scam, right?

[00:08:43] Erik Arbuthnot: They want that $25,000, that’s, that this whole purpose. So they change their MO. And they're going--, they tell the victim in Texas to drop the money in a trash can in Houston. And so he actually has a co-conspirator, um, Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, pick up the money in Houston out of the trash can. We had a great break in the case that the trash can they chose was at a elementary school that had a great video surveillance system. So she was actually caught on video driving up in her father's truck, um, getting out, going directly to the trash can, picking up the bag of money, getting back in the vehicle and driving away. We, in conjunction with the IRS, FBI, and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, we arrest Acosta and interview her. We come to find out that she’s working for prisoners in Mexico City.

[00:09:39] Julie: Were you surprised?

[00:09:41] Erik Arbuthnot: It was really an aha moment where the FBI goes, wow. The people making these phone calls all day, every day to the US are in prison in Mexico City. And they speak English, they speak English very well, um, and they're extorting US citizens over the telephone by literally saying they've kidnapped their son or daughter, and it's not the case. There's no kidnapping. She identifies uh, Brito Ramirez as the, the caller, the person who speaks English and is calling victims in the US and requesting um ransom money.

[00:10:21] Julie: Can we back up here just one minute? How are the prisoners getting cell phones, and what kind of prison call center are we talking about here?

[00:10:28] Erik Arbuthnot: Having a cell phone in prison is against the rules, so this is, this is contraband, and they use the smuggled in cell phones to make the uh, the phone calls. And originally, I had this sort of, have these pictures in your mind of, of, you know, like a boiler room in the prison where, you know, all the prisoners are, prisoners are gathered around, you know, making these phone calls, and it’s really not the case. They’re not in a special room. They’re sort of like in the hallways. They have headphones in and they’re dialing call after call after call, and literally phishing for what we call like the perfect storm where people answering the phone have a daughter who believe when that, when they heard the voice that that sounded like their daughter. It’s not their daughter, but they actually will recruit girlfriends, friends, relatives in the US that they will get, hey, I need you to scream and say, “Help me, Mommy! Help me, Mommy!” in English. They have that recording, and they’ll continue to play that all over and over and over for each phone call.

[00:11:36] Julie: Got it. Okay. So what can you tell me about Brito Ramirez then? I assume he’s the mastermind to this scam?

[00:11:42] Erik Arbuthnot: Yep. So, uh Brito Ramirez, um, was born in Mexico, and he came to the US as a child. And he goes to school in Houston, um, and that's where he learns to uh speak English. He begins to uh, commit crimes, and ultimately is arrested by the US and discovered that he's not actually a US citizen, um, and he gets deported to Mexico. And he continues his sort of life of crime when he gets to Mexico and ends up in prison in Mexico City. Um, he actually did some real kidnapping for ransoms in uh Mexico that leads him into, to the prison.

[00:12:22] Julie: And where did he get the idea to start calling people in the US with this scam?

[00:12:26] Erik Arbuthnot: When you look at virtual kidnappings 10 years ago, they were happening in the US in Spanish to Spanish speakers, ‘cause you had to target a Spanish speaker ‘cause he only spoke Spanish, right? So people like Brito Ramirez show up and they realize, hey, you speak English. And they realize, oh, he is a English speaker and guess what, now we don’t have to just call Spanish, you know, like East Los Angeles where we think like the 213 area code, where we're hoping to get a, someone on the line who speaks Spanish. We don't have to do that. Guess what we can do? We can call every person in the US, and in English, we can extort money from them using this, this scheme that's been around for over a decade.

[00:13:13] Julie: Hmm.

[00:13:13] Erik Arbuthnot: You don’t see people out of custody doing this, because it takes too much time for the results. So I wouldn’t say like this is a great crime for every criminal, but it’s a great crime for prisoners, because they have time. So if you look at the time and the money ratio, it’s not like this absolutely like successful crime, but if you consider I’m a prisoner and I’m not supposed to make any money at all, or do any crime at all, then yeah, I’m doing pretty good, because I make like $10,000 a month.

[00:13:46] Julie: Pretty lucrative.

[00:13:47] Erik Arbuthnot: Yes, for a prisoner.

[00:13:49] Julie: For a prisoner.

[00:13:50] Erik Arbuthnot: Yeah.

[00:13:50] Julie: You said earlier that originally these kidnappers were targeting wealthy area codes, but now it sounds like they’ve spread out to other areas?

[00:13:56] Erik Arbuthnot: Absolutely.

[00:13:57] Julie: Can you tell me more about that?

[00:13:58] Erik Arbuthnot: Anybody in the United States, all of the English speakers, Spanish speakers, literally anyone in the United States could be a victim of this uh crime.

[00:14:10] Julie: Do you have any idea how many victims are out there?

[00:14:12] Erik Arbuthnot: We know it’s thousands of phone calls, but we really want to know like, you know, how many people are getting these, these uh calls. This is um, an unreported crime, especially if they don’t make a payment. A lot of law enforcement agencies will not take a report because number one, it’s an international crime, there’s, there’s nobody here that they can touch, and, and there is a misunderstanding that you didn’t lose any money, so, get over it. What the FBI’s recognized is no, these, these victims have been traumatized, that they really believed, even if it was only for an hour, that their son or daughter was kidnapped. There was one couple whose son was away at college, um, and they uh got the phone call, they made the payment, and then after they made the payment, they couldn’t get a hold of their son. They said, he was away at college. He was actually at some, like a summer pool party, and so they couldn’t get a hold of him even after they paid their ransom, and they had this sinking feeling, you know what, they’ve killed him. And they actually went to the neighborhood park and they started going through the dumpsters looking for his body.

[00:15:26] Julie: Oh my gosh.

[00:15:26] Erik Arbuthnot: And even after their son was home and safe, they were still traumatized to the point where they thought this Mexican cartel was going to still come get them, and wanted more money even after they had their son back, they were still traumatized, um, and still they’re different people today when you talk to them.

[00:15:48] Julie: Oh my gosh. Now, going back to the case of Brito Ramirez and Yannette Acosta, what happened to them?

[00:15:54] Erik Arbuthnot: She actually, she pled guilty in the case, and um, was sentenced to 88 months in federal prison. So she’s currently serving her uh federal sentence for this.

[00:16:05] Julie: And then Brito Ramirez was indicted. So what sort of difference do you think this will ever make?

[00:16:09] Erik Arbuthnot: The FBI knows that we are not going to prosecute our way out of telephone extortion schemes, um, out of virtual kidnapping calls; that we really need to get the word out to the public and let everybody know to be, you know, super vigilant when they answer the phone and recognize what a virtual kidnapping is and what to do when you, when you get a call like this.

[00:16:34] Julie: And that’s why we’re profiling this scam on the podcast. This has been really eye-opening, thank you so much Erik.

[00:16:39] Erik Arbuthnot: Thank you.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:16:43] Julie: My next guest is also very involved in the FBI’s kidnapping program. I’m here now with Special Agent Scott Abagnale who is the Unit Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiations Unit. He’s also the son of my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Scott, welcome, it’s good to have you on the show.

[00:17:00] Scott Abagnale: Thank you very much, Julie, my pleasure.

[00:17:01] Julie: Scott, before we dive into the details of how the FBI handles kidnappings in the US and abroad, can you please share a bit about your background? How long have you been working for the FBI?

[00:17:10] Scott Abagnale: I’ve been with the FBI for a little over 14 years now, and, and prior to that I was an attorney. I was always interested in working for the FBI and so when I had the opportunity, uh, I was more than willing to take it.

[00:17:21] Julie: You said that you, uh you’re very interested in negotiations. Can I ask why? What about negotiations is so interesting for you?

[00:17:28] Scott Abagnale: Uh, negotiations both uh crisis negotiations and the context of hostage negotiations and folks that are in barricades, um, as well as kidnappings, uh are just in a very vulnerable position, and they need uh cool-headed people to help resolve those situations. And I just very much wanted to be able to play a part in that, um, in helping those people come out safely, helping those people be reunited with their families, um, and so for those reasons it appealed to me very early on, to get involved in the negotiation program.

[00:17:55] Julie: So tell us about kidnappings for ransom in the US. How often and why do they happen?

[00:18:02] Scott Abagnale: So thankfully, kidnappings for ransom inside the United States, uh that would involve an FBI response are relatively rare. Most of our kidnappings are international kidnappings, and they come from US persons and lawful permanent residents, visiting parts of the world that are dangerous and sometimes uh they're familiar to them, are nevertheless dangerous for them to be present, and they expose themselves in a way that gets them kidnapped. It's a very lucrative business, uh it's uh able to turn over a good deal of money and in most cases, people come out alive, um, and so for kidnappers, um, it's worth the risk of getting caught, uh to be able to capture people, hold them against their will, uh and ransom them back to their families.

[00:18:43] Julie: Really. Wow. And this is open to just more than Mexico? Are there other countries as well?

[00:18:48] Scott Abagnale: Certainly. Uh, Mexico is where we get most of our kidnappings here in the United States, but other countries in the past and present have included Haiti, the Philippines, Nigeria, um, and really there's no country in the world where you're completely immune from uh risk of kidnapping. Um, but very frequently there are groups that specialize in kidnapping as their primary means of generating income for themselves.

[00:19:09] Julie: Okay. Are we seeing an increase or decrease year after year in the number of kidnappings that are happening abroad?

[00:19:15] Scott Abagnale: It fluctuates, but in the past couple years, it’s been about 100 kidnappings, uh international kidnappings, uh affecting uh US persons where the FBI’s gotten involved. I think what’s important to note about that though is that we suspect the number’s much higher because we know um, anecdotally and from contacts in the private sector, uh that other folks are kidnapped, uh ransoms are paid, and no one ever notifies the FBI that that’s occurred.

[00:19:38] Julie: So they handle it without including the government, they’ll do it privately.

[00:19:42] Scott Abagnale: Correct.

[00:19:43] Julie: Got it. When are you called in?

[00:19:45] Scott Abagnale: As early as possible. And unfortunately, depending on how the kidnapping gets reported, it may take time to get uh to the FBI. For example, if someone goes into the Embassy um, somebody in the Embassy has to vet it, take in the complaint, then it will quickly turn around and provide it over to the FBI and to other folks who'd be able to assist in resolving the kidnapping, but as soon as possible, we try to get negotiators directly engaged with the family at their discretion. They don't have to take our assistance if they don't wish, um, but to make us available to provide them negotiation strategies and support.

[00:20:15] Julie: Okay. Would you say that the, for lack of better terms, kidnapping industry, how would you want me to say that? Kidnapping industry...

[00:20:23] Scott Abagnale: Kidnapping industry’s probably a fair term unfortunately.

[00:20:25] Julie: Okay, okay. I mean would you say that the kidnapping industry has evolved over the past 20, 30 years, and if so, in what ways?

[00:20:33] Scott Abagnale: It certainly has evolved, uh, kidnapping's one of the probably oldest professions uh of course in the world one could have, but it's developed mostly in technology. Criminals are able to utilize uh the internet as well as different secure communications to obfuscate where they're operating from, um and how they're conducting their business, which certainly makes it much more difficult, uh to be able to locate or capture them.

[00:20:54] Julie: Yeah. Now, if I get a call and somebody says, "I have your son," and I hear someone screaming in the background and it sounds like my son, how am I supposed to know whether this is a virtual kidnapping scam or a real kidnapping?

[00:21:05] Scott Abagnale: That’s an excellent question. So what we're always trying to establish in kidnapping negotiations is proof of life, which is really timely evidence that the person that's allegedly been kidnapped is alive and well. Um, and the way we best like to get that is through some sort of video exchange in this day and age. If we could get someone, for example, on a social platform, communicating with us directly saying yes, this is when I was taken, this is what's happened, that would be ideal. We certainly can't always get that, um, so we do look at other things like meaningful communications, um, on the phone, um, photographs that we don't feel have been doctored or tampered with, but often kidnappers will, particularly virtual kidnappers, will try to employ some sort of ruse to suggest that they do, in fact, have your loved one. And that can include things like someone screaming in the background which, when people are in stress, if you, you may very well believe is your loved one, though it's not. It's one of the fe--, kidnapper's associates, um, but in addition to that, we also see a variety of other uh means in which kidnappers, or virtual kidnappers, uh try to demonstrate proof of life um, without actually putting you in touch with your loved one. It's very important that you have someone like uh the FBI there to assess what's being presented as evidence of your loved one's capture, um, and we can try to give you our best guidance on what we believe is either sufficient or insufficient in what's been provided. So there's really two different kind of what we consider versions of virtual kidnappings, but within them, there's nuances.

[00:22:35] Julie: Oh, okay, can you share with me what the two different kinds are?

[00:22:37] Scott Abagnale: Um, so the first version of the virtual kidnapping is really basic, you know, someone's either trolling through social media, they may be looking through a phone book, and then calling people; sometimes with a little, sometimes with really with no information about them whatsoever and attempting to generate fear, and then use that fear to extort them by suggesting they’ve captured uh a child or a wife or what have you, um, and in fact, they don't really know much about the person at all. And they hope that by very quickly generating fear, making a demand that's fairly reasonable to pay, you know, two or three thousand dollars, um, and then also willing to come down very quickly to get that payment, you will have a virtual kidnapping then resolve itself within maybe an hour or less, right. That's the real basic version of the virtual kidnapping scam, but the evolution of it has become far more sophisticated where we do have individuals who, because they really are traveling, say in Mexico, um, and because the virtual kidnapper has been able to identify that, maybe through social media, um, maybe through someone working in a hotel, um, who feeds them tips about Americans visiting the hotel, they're able to collect information about that person, then contact them and say something to the effect of, "I understand you're staying in this location, let me explain what's going to happen. If you are to leave, you'll be killed. Uh if you call anyone from your phone, we'll know. Um, all you're going to do is answer my calls and stay in your room until I tell you you're free to leave." They will then try to elicit information from them about themselves, what they're doing there, why they're there, try to get some information that would be very hard to maybe find otherwise, like through social media or friends, and then they will use that information when they contact your family to say, “I have your loved one, this is who they are, this is what they were doing,” throw out some information that was unique to that exchange to generate that fear, and then set out a price. And often, now, we're seeing in these more sophisticated virtual kidnappings, tens of thousands of dollars are being asked, very much like what you’d see in a traditional kidnapping. Now, they will often come down very quickly to try to secure some kind of payment, because they know that as in a traditional virtual kidnapping, the longer this process goes, the more likely, you know, the person in the hotel's going to become suspicious and say, forget this. I'm going to go out and try to get help, um, or the family may find some other way to communicate with that person. But this sort of more sophisticated virtual kidnapping can go for two or three days like a traditional kidnapping. In addition to that, they will use proof of life in, in a more sophisticated manner. For example, they will take photographs of people by, in a case where say two people have been kidnapped, they'll have them photograph each other, their hands behind their back perhaps looking in distress uh, and then send that out to the families to try to demonstrate that hey, we do, in fact, have this person uh in our possession. Um, and in cases where multiple people have been kidnapped, um, that aren’t related, they may actually try to run two scams at the same time so that one family is seeing images that are their loved one, while the other family is seeing images of their loved one, and both families have no knowledge that these individuals are even together in this, uh as victims of this scam.

[00:25:48] Julie: Wow. Do you see that often?

[00:25:51] Scott Abagnale: Unfortunately yes. Um, it, but we basically, we saw an increase in virtual kidnappings from 26 to 52 uh over the course of the last couple of years.

[00:26:01] Julie: Wow. Doubling.

[00:26:03] Scott Abagnale: So, I think the scam will definitely increase over time. We've seen it increase to date, um, and as technology only makes things more simple and easy to encrypt and mask where calls are coming from, where people are located, it stands to reason that this will continue to be a, a scam people take advantage of. Um, in its simplest form, you can make a good deal of money over only a few hours. Um, in its more complex form you can make a really large sum of money uh over a few days. And in addition to that, while most of these have originated out of Mexico over the past five years, I would suspect that over time other countries, uh criminal elements where they feel they can get away with this will take advantage of that, and we're likely to see places that we hadn't previously seen uh using these scams, uh in targeting Americans as well.

[00:26:52] Julie: Okay, so what should people do if they believe someone they know has been kidnapped? Virtual or not virtual?

[00:26:57] Scott Abagnale: If someone believes that their loved one's been kidnapped, um, whether or no it's a kidnapping or a virtual kidnapping, they should try to get down as much information about what the perpetrator is claiming has occurred. They should ensure they do not make a payment to this person quickly uh, without having consultation with the FBI. The reason for that is because so many of these are just scams and not, in fact, kidnappings. Where the reality is, if someone truly has been kidnapped, unfortunately you are likely going to have to pay something to get that person released. But in the case of virtual kidnappings, you're really just feeding a scammer, uh, and becoming a victim, and in fact, there is no risk at all to your loved one in this situations. So withholding payment, collecting what information you can, and then contacting the FBI for assistance, is your best steps forward early on. Additionally, we recommend that if someone thinks someone's been kidnapped, uh particularly if their family is receiving calls, uh as well, that they consolidate who is going to be that spokesperson for the family. We don't want to see two or three different people in a family or in a group of friends all having different communications with a kidnapper or a suspected kidnapper.

[00:28:07] Julie: So tell me about reporting. We hear so often that people don’t report being scammed. Are you seeing this in virtual kidnapping scams as well?

[00:28:13] Scott Abagnale: We believe we really are only hearing a fraction of what’s really occurring, um, in the scheme of both the more simplistic and the more complex virtual kidnappings, because we know many of them just simply don't get reported, which is why we actually encourage people even if you have uncovered that it was a scam quickly, uh take the time to contact the FBI, um, at TIPS.FBI.gov and report it, um, so that we're able to actually take that into account and include it in our numbers and in our assessment of what's occurring and what trends are emerging, uh out in, in the wide world.

[00:28:46] Julie: Got it. Well, Scott, thanks so much for being on this show today. It's such a pleasure to have you.

[00:28:51] Scott Abagnale: Thank you very much, Julie, my pleasure.

[00:28:53] Julie: With this said, I want to bring back my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Frank, how do you think Scott did? This is his first time on a podcast.

[00:28:59] Frank Abagnale: I thought he did a fantastic job, but I knew he would.

[00:29:02] Julie: Okay.

[00:29:04] Frank Abagnale: I didn’t know he had such a great radio voice though.

[00:29:06] Julie: I know, right. These really great dynamic microphones, it really makes a difference. Well, it really is a pleasure to have you both here in the studio with us today. It's certainly a very unique and special episode as it’s the first time you’ve ever worked together. Have you guys ever wanted to work together?

[00:29:21] Scott Abagnale: It would be neat if we had a reason to, I suppose, but we haven’t, we really haven’t. Um, and uh, this is, I mean, the first time we’ve even done an interview together, uh about a shared topic we have uh expertise in.

[00:29:33] Julie: Well, I know our listeners would love to learn more about you both, so is it okay if we take a walk through memory lane?

[00:29:37] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:29:38] Julie: Great. Let’s do it. All right. How many kids are in the Abagnale family?

[00:29:42] Frank Abagnale: Three boys.

[00:29:43] Julie: Three boys. And where do you fall in line?

[00:29:45] Frank Abagnale: He’s the oldest.

[00:29:46] Scott Abagnale: The oldest.

[00:29:46] Julie: You're the oldest, okay. Scott, when did you first learn about your father’s past, and how did he explain it to you?

[00:29:52] Scott Abagnale: I was probably about 10, I think, when I first started hearing about it, and I heard about it from kids at school actually. Well, honestly kids were being really uh, disrespectful about it, um, so yeah, it was basically like getting teased, um, in the schoolyard.

[00:30:07] Julie: Ah.

[00:30:07] Scott Abagnale: But uh, in the scheme of things, that never really impacted me. I’ve never thought uh I had anything to be ashamed of, nor did my dad, given uh what all he went through to get to where he was at the point, I was a 10-year-old so.

[00:30:19] Julie: Yeah. Um, and then once you found out, did you share with your younger brothers?

[00:30:23] Scott Abagnale: No, I didn’t. And I'm not sure, they probably had their own stories about how they heard about it. No, I don't recall sharing it with them in any way.

[00:30:29] Julie: So you came home from school. Did you talk to your dad about it? And what did he say?

[00:30:32] Scott Abagnale: Oh yeah. No, oh, he sat me down and explained where it was coming from. He was very matter of fact.

[00:30:36] Julie: Yeah. I remember one time your father was sharing with me, um in the green room about a time when he took you to the FBI Academy, and it's when you first expressed interest that you wanted to be an FBI agent. Is that, is that right? Can you tell, can you share that sto--, story with us?

[00:30:53] Scott Abagnale: Yeah, I was uh, I was probably about 12, and uh I had been interested in, in law enforcement like a lot of kids are, um, I think, um, but uh, I started to really get enamored with it when I was about 12 years old and it never, never left.

[00:31:09] Julie: And what did you like most about it?

[00:31:10] Scott Abagnale: I think it just appealed to me that it was an incredible blend of serving your country, serving what I consider to be the most just legal system in the world, um, help and protect the uh innocent um, from harm. It just had all the things that I guess appealed to my nature in one place.

[00:31:27] Julie: Frank, is this how you remember it?

[00:31:28] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, he, uh, he told me that, he, he said, "You know, Dad, that's what I'd like to be is an FBI agent." And um, you know at first like any dad you say, "Oh, that's great, son," you know. And I thought he'd eventually lose interest, but when he graduated from high school, he said, "You know, I'd really like to be a, an FBI agent." So I said, "Well, you know, son, you have to go to college." And so he went to college and I thought during college he would change his mind. And when he graduated from college he said, "You know, I really want to be an FBI agent." So I said to him, "You know you can get three years of work experience, or you could go to law school or accounting classes, and get a CPA license. It may help you get in." I explained to him it was very difficult. Back then the FBI was taking one in every 10,000 applicants. That was extremely difficult. I always let him know that to get in, and of course, I always was aware of my background, and I thought to myself, you know, the FBI could look at this in two ways. They could say, well his dad's done a lot for us, maybe we should look at his son. Or the FBI could say, no, I don't want his son to be an FBI agent, but of course that's not the way it works. It's always based on your own merits and who you are. So he went to Loyola School of Law in Chicago, he excelled there in law school, and of course the, the Bureau requires you pass the bar. He passed the bar in Illinois, and then he went through the year long process of applying to the FBI. And I was always worried that he'd be turned down, so I would remind him, you know, there are other agencies that you can look at, and maybe think about, but he was very much set his mind on FBI. So every year my wife would have a Christmas party for the agents in Oklahoma, and their wives and children, and the SAC would come, the Special Agent in Charge and the Assistant Agent in Charge, and he would talk to them and talk to the other agents about this is what I want to do, and he would get discouraged because the SAC might have said, “Well, you know, my son applied but they turned him down.” So he'd come back to me and say, "You know, Dad, if they turned the SAC's son down, how am I going to get in?" I said, "Son, it's all based on you and, and your merits and um, as I mentioned to you before, in my um, I'm 71 years old, there has nothing that's happened in my life, and there will be nothing that will happen in my life that was greater than seeing my son become an FBI agent, or more amazing that someone from my background would bring a child into the world, and that child turn around and become an FBI agent, which tells you that we live in a great country where you are judged by you, not by your parents or your associates, and so I'm very, very proud. And you know, I've had the opportunity to teach at the Academy for almost four decades, up to two generations of agents. I taught Scott's class when he went through the Academy. It's an amazing group of men and women who are dedicated to their country, their family, uh their love of justice, and um, there's nothing more proud than for a dad to have a son who is in, in the FBI.

[00:34:26] Julie: Yeah, I can tell you're very, very proud. How does it make you feel to hear your dad talk about you like this?

[00:34:30] Scott Abagnale: It's obviously really makes you feel good. It also uh never stops being embarrassing. Um, but uh, but uh, but it is certainly uh, you know a great place of pride for myself to make him proud of me, so.

[00:34:40] Julie: Yeah, and your mother's very proud of you as well.

[00:34:42] Scott Abagnale: Absolutely, yeah. I mean I think it's well understood I have the best mom in the world.

[00:34:46] Julie: I’m trying to envision, you know, around the dinner table at the Abagnale house when you guys are kids, so you guys weren’t talking about white collar crime.

[00:34:52] Scott Abagnale: No.

(chuckles)

[00:34:56] Frank Abagnale: You know, for most of Scott’s career he was uh in counterintelligence and so obviously very top secret stuff, so he never discusses any of those things uh with me or would I would have wanted him uh to.

[00:35:07] Julie: Okay, so we know what Scott does. What does, what do the other, the other boys do?

[00:35:12] Frank Abagnale: Um, my middle son, Christopher and his wife, own a, a own uh stores, a couple of stores in Charleston that deal with young girls' clothing. They've had it for about 10 years and they do very well with it. And my youngest son uh Sean, develops video games for a major gaming company, and he's currently working as a senior producer on a game called "Doom" which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so he's working on the 25th anniversary edition of, of "Doom."

[00:35:38] Julie: Nice. Nice, very successful.

[00:35:40] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.

[00:35:41] Julie: Successful boys. Um, anybody else in the family going to be FBI agents?

[00:35:45] Frank Abagnale: You never know, maybe one of Scott's children will be in it.

[00:35:49] Scott Abagnale: Yeah, you never know. Um, my kids uh certainly talk about it at times, but none of the three of them are, I think, committed yet, uh to any one path.

[00:35:58] Julie: Sure.

[00:35:59] Scott Abagnale: I'd certainly be as thrilled as I think my dad was, as I was if one of them does go that way, but uh, in my mind, as long as they're happy then I'll be happy.

[00:36:07] Julie: Uh-huh. Frank you taught Scott’s class at the FBI.

[00:36:12] Frank Abagnale: Academy.

[00:36:13] Julie: Academy. Tell me what that was like to have Scott in the classroom?

[00:36:16] Frank Abagnale: Well what was interesting is that first I got a call from Scott that said, "I've been asked if I had a problem with you teaching my class." And I said, "Well do you?" And he said, "No, I told them that wasn't a problem." And then I got a call saying, if I had a problem teaching the class that Scott was in, and I said, "No, I don't have a problem doing that." So uh that was kind of humorous to me that they both checked with both of us about uh teaching the class. At the time the Assistant Deputy Director in charge of the Academy uh basically, I had worked with for many, many years while he was back when he was an agent. He was unaware that Scott was in the Academy, so when he came in to talk to Scott's class, he asked Scott, uh to get up his name, and he said, "Scott Abagnale," so he said to him, "Oh, Abagnale. You know have a name of a very famous uh, gentleman," and Scott said, "No, that's my dad." So he, so there have been a lot of curious things that have happened over the years, because it's such an unusual name, uh so people put two and two together. And I think Scott goes through the same thing uh that I go through all the time. So if he's going through TSA, and he shows his credentials, they'll say to him, "Oh, you know, you’ve got the name of that famous uh guy," and he of course, Scott goes, "Yeah, I get that all the time." But sometimes they kind of know and so they keep trying to push you and go, "Wait, you know, I think I heard his son's an FBI..." yeah, it's just amazing. But my favorite is my youngest son who said to me when he was in college, I asked him, "Do you have a lot of problems with people recognizing your name?" He said, "Yeah, they ask me all these questions." "So what do you usually say?" "Well, a lot of times I tell them I don't know you, and then sometimes I tell them that you’re an uncle of mine, but I never met you. But if it's a pretty girl, I tell them you're my dad."

[00:38:03] Julie: Ah... smooth, smooth. So what kind of grade did you give Scott in class?

[00:38:08] Frank Abagnale: I didn't have anything to do with his grades, but I basically hoped he, he learned some things with the rest of his agents.

[00:38:16] Julie: Good.

[00:38:17] Frank Abagnale: I remember, it was a few years ago, I went down to the FBI Field Office in Jacksonville to make a presentation and the SAC was a woman who was the Special Agent in Charge, and she said to me, "Before you leave today, one of our agents would like to speak with you, and I'll bring you to her cubby." And I said, "Okay, great." So when it was over, she brought me over, and it was a woman probably in her 40s, and she said to me, "I just wanted to tell you a quick uh story. I, I met your son because I was one of the three agents who interviewed him during his process of going through the year of background checks, etc. I had no idea who his father was, but after having interviewed him, I turned to the other two agents and said, 'that, if there ever was an FBI material, that's it.' And so the other agent said, 'Well you know who his dad is, right?'" She said, "No." And then she explained. She said, "I didn't know that, but I picked him, and I just wanted you to know that." And I think the recruiting agent in Oklahoma City told me years later that, "I was very impressed with Scott because I realized he could be anything he wants to be. He could go on to law and practice and be very successful at it. I knew he really, truly was someone who was joining the FBI to be in the FBI as a career, not just to go in the FBI for several years and then move on to something else." And I get great reports. I get to go out to a lot of the field offices around the country and people that have worked with Scott, given me great feedback, so I'm obviously very, very proud.

[00:39:47] Julie: But what is that like, always getting stopped to have a name? The Abagnale name?

[00:39:51] Scott Abagnale: Oh it just, it's something you grow up with, so it doesn't really, it doesn't bother me. It certainly doesn't. Um I don’t have a problem with people asking questions, um, it's easy to brag about him, so it's a, it's just something you grow up with and you get used to, and you don't think that much about.

[00:40:04] Julie: Yeah.

[00:40:04] Frank Abagnale: It's amazing that people recognize me more by name than picture. I can't even start to spell my name and they go, oh, "You're not the guy they made the movie about?" I think that's because Steven Spielberg made such emphasis about the name, he kept putting it on the, on the chalkboard, Abagnale, not Abignoale, not Abigail, Abagnale, and so I think people, and being an unusual name, people recognize it a lot.

[00:40:27] Julie: Yeah. Catch Me If You Can. When the film, the premiere, were you, did you get to go to Hollywood? Did you get to participate at all in any of the screenings, and what was, what was that kind of that chapter of your life like?

[00:40:40] Scott Abagnale: Yeah, I did. I was in uh law school at the time when it was being made, and then came out. It was kind of remarkable just because growing up, it had always been something someone was somewhere working on, um, and I think by the time it finally had come out, most of us had kind of uh, had kind of figured, oh, okay, well, you know, we'll see how it goes. Um, but um, but it was entertaining. Yeah, we were able to uh go out and see a lot of the film being made, and um, both uh Steven Spielberg and all the actors involved were very gracious, very welcoming, um, and so it was, it was an entertaining experience.

[00:41:10] Frank Abagnale: And, and Tom Hanks sent Scott a great handwritten note when he graduated from the Academy.

[00:41:15] Scott Abagnale: He did.

[00:41:15] Julie: Aw, nice. Do you remember what it said?

[00:41:18] Scott Abagnale: Um, it, it was very, it was short, but very uh it was funny. He, he basically commented like, "What? Scott's in the FBI now." You know and it was very congratulatory. It was very kind.

[00:41:29] Frank Abagnale: He, he told him it came from his glamorous portrayal of the agent.

[00:41:34] Julie: That's so great, that's so great. Um, okay, so I think um, if it's okay with you guys, can we transition to five surprising facts about Scott's dad.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:41:50] Julie: Do you want to do it?

[00:41:51] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, Scott knows what (inaudible).

[00:41:53] Scott Abagnale: I don't know if there are five surprising ones. Yeah, I was trying to think about this actually a little bit last night. I'm not sure if I would be able to come up with five.

[00:42:00] Julie: Okay, if you can't come up with five, can you come up with three?

[00:42:03] Scott Abagnale: I would say I can probably come up with three.

[00:42:06] Julie: Okay, do we need to phone in your mom?

[00:42:07] Scott Abagnale: No, no she would be...

[00:42:08] Julie: Or your brothers?

[00:42:09] Scott Abagnale: ... she won't want to contribute. Um, so I, I think first and foremost, uh may be surprising is that uh if you don't know who my dad is, and he's in a, in a social situation, you probably wouldn't guess it, because he's very uh he's very calm, very quiet. Um, he's not what I think a lot of people expect, which would be a very boisterous kind of commanding the room sort of presence, um, in, in a social setting. He, he's very quiet, very engaging, but very quiet. I think, I guess another thing uh that might be interesting about him is probably his uh, his favorite movies are comedies, um, absolutely. Probably Love Actually, still, your favorite?

[00:42:43] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.

[00:42:44] Scott Abagnale: Um, and uh and then lastly, I would say is just that uh, all growing up, we’d, we’d get to travel quite a bit, and whenever we’d travel, there was only one place he really wanted to be, which was back home on the couch relaxed. Um, with all the traveling he did, um, it may come as a surpr--, it may or may not, I suppose, come as a surprise, but that uh there’s nowhere he would rather be than, that at home with my mom, um, you know, and able to take a break.

[00:43:08] Julie: Yeah.

[00:43:08] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:43:09] Julie: That’s great. So really your favorite film is Love Actually.

[00:43:13] Frank Abagnale: I’m a romantic at heart, so I like very romantic uh, comedies, so yeah, that’s true.

[00:43:18] Julie: Yeah, good, okay. Well, you guys, this is all so great. Thank you for being here at AARP Studios doing your first ever interview together on The Perfect Scam Podcast. This has been a lot of fun. Anything else you guys want to add?

[00:43:31] Scott Abagnale: Just thank you very much.

[00:43:32] Frank Abagnale: Thanks for having us.

[00:43:33] Julie: Of course, thank you.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:43:36] Julie: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters, Producer Brook Ellis, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Julie Getz.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

TIPS:  If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.

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