My Mentor: An ex-con artist turned FBI consultant | Crain's

My Mentor: An ex-con artist turned FBI consultant

Ori Eisen (left) and Frank Abagnale (right) at the annual Cloud Identity Summit in New Orleans, LA in June. 

Photo courtesy of John Bates

Most people know Frank Abagnale Jr. as the reformed con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 box-office hit “Catch Me If You Can.” To Ori Eisen, CEO of the insured online authentication system Trusona, Abagnale is a trusted business partner, friend and mentor.   

Before becoming a security consultant for thousands of corporations, financial institutions and government agencies, Abagnale was on the run from the Federal Bureau Investigation for fraud, forgery and embezzlement, as he details on his website. From the age of 16 to 21, Abagnale wrote hundreds of bad checks and assumed multiple identities to escape detection from law enforcement. When he was caught in 1969, he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison. In exchange for helping the FBI catch other con artists with his expertise, Abagnale only served five years.  

After working for the FBI for more than 40 years lecturing on fraud, forgery and identity theft, Abagnale is considered a leading expert in the security industry. Like many business executives, Eisen initially sought out Abagnale as a personal consultant and advisor, hoping to learn from the best about fraud detection. What Eisen got from Abagnale was a lifelong friend who taught him as much about parenting as he did about business. 

"He is a living example of what a great father should be," Eisen said. 

Business first   

When Eisen was the director of worldwide fraud for American Express in 2004, business came first for him. His primary focus was creating the best products for cybersecurity. While Eisen had the technical prowess to create such products, he couldn't imagine all the ways hackers or scammers would try to undermine them. So he needed to find someone who could, and he knew just the man to help him — Abagnale.  

For three months Eisen, recalled, he tried to get a meeting with Abagnale. Every time he called his office, however, Eisen was told that Abagnale was too busy to meet with him — he had a speaking engagement, he was traveling, he was in a meeting. Eisen finally got his chance after Abagnale gave a talk in San Antonio, Texas. During Abagnale’s limo ride to the airport, Eisen had 20 minutes to convince the world's leading expert on fraud detection to take him on as a customer. 

Abagnale agreed to work with him on one condition — Eisen had to quit his day job at American Express, because Abagnale knew Eisen would not be able to play out his ideas and build the technology he wanted to create for them. He had to do it on his own dime.  

Eisen agreed and shortly after he started 41st Parameter, an Internet fraud detection and prevention company, that same year with Abagnale as his personal business advisor and consultant.    

In 2013, Experian acquired 41st Parameter for $325 million. Abagnale said he thought Eisen would leave the cybersecurity business because Eisen had millions to his name and wouldn't need a business advisor anymore. A couple months later, however, Eisen came back to Abagnale.  

"We need to do one more thing," Eisen told him, Abagnale recalled.   

"What's that?" Abagnale asked.  

"Well, you always told me we need to find a way to make 100 percent sure that the other person on the end of the device is in fact that person. So sure that we could get it insured that it is in fact that person on the other end of the device." 

"Do you think we can do that?" 

"Yes, but will you work with me to do it?"  

Abagnale said, "Absolutely," and Trusona was born.  

"He wants to make society better. He wants to make the world safer," Abagnale said of his friend. "And if he had $800 million tomorrow, I think he would still be doing the same thing he is doing."  

Abagnale said the reason he and Eisen have worked together so long and so well is because Eisen can create anything in the world he wants to with code and Abagnale can think of every way to undermine so Eisen can make a foolproof-product.  

Being a con artist, Abagnale had to be able to read people as much as he had to be able to deceive them. Eisen said Abagnale taught him not just how to create secure products but also how to read people so he could foster positive business relationships and avoid negative ones. 

"If there is even a hint of deceit and sleight of hand, which is unfortunately common with sales people, it’s a no-go," Eisen said.  

Family matters   

Six months before leaving 41st Parameter, Eisen and Abagnale went on a six-city world tour. While on the tour, Eisen said, he noticed something unusual about his business partner. No matter what city in they were or how many engagements they had, Abagnale always made time to talk to his wife and children.  

"I give total credit to what I have done with my life to my wife, who I have been married to for 40 years, [and] my three sons,” Abagnale said. “My family is what turned my life around.”  

After observing how Abagnale interacted with his family, Eisen said he decided to approach his own life differently. Eisen told his two kids, Ariel, 10, and Dan, 14, that his work wasn't going to be his first priority anymore — they were.   

"It shouldn't have been to begin with, but I was too young to understand that," Eisen said.   

Eisen said he now puts his children first by letting them be a part of his business decisions. He calls them his "travel czars" and lets them choose what business trips he goes on. Most often, he said, his children let him travel without objections because they know how important Eisen's work is to him, and sometimes, they go with him.  

"The difference between being a father and a good daddy is letting them be a part of the equation," Eisen said. 

Abagnale continues to act as a business advisor to Eisen at Trusona, and the two speak together regularly at security conferences. Most recently, they spoke at the CyberSec 2016 conference in New York City, hosted by American Banker on July 19.  

"I wish every criminal that leaves prison or jail would make the commitment that he did to his life, to society," Eisen said of Abagnale. "The world would be an amazing place if that happened, if every prisoner could learn from Frank about how you can turn your life 180 degrees."  

August 2, 2016 - 3:35pm