In the process, he claimed to have assumed no fewer than eight separate identities, impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, a Bureau of Prisons agent, and a lawyer. He escaped from police custody twice (once from a taxiing airliner and once from a U.S. federal penitentiary), before he was 21 years old. Abagnale's life story provided the inspiration for the feature film Catch Me If You Can, and he elaborated on his life through his ghostwritten autobiography of the same name. He is currently a consultant and lecturer at the academy and field offices for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He also runs Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company.
ChildhoodAbagnale was born April 27, 1948 the third of four children and spent the first sixteen years of his life in Bronxville, New York. His French mother, Paulette, and father, Frank Abagnale Sr., divorced when he was 16, and afterwards he would be the only child of whom his father would gain custody. At the divorce hearing, Abagnale ran away never to see his father again. According to Abagnale, his father did not necessarily want him, but to reunite his family, he would attempt to win his mother back until his father's death in 1974. His father was also an affluent local who was very keen on politics, and was a major role model for Abagnale Jr.
First conHis first victim was his father. As Frank Jr. grew interested in women, he found that he could not stop spending money on them. To fund his exploits with the opposite sex, since he was always short on cash, he asked his father for a credit card on which to charge gas for the 1962 Ford truck his father gave him. He began to make deals with gas station employees all around the New York area to falsely charge items to his card, then give him a portion of the money; in return the employee got to keep the item and "resell" it for the full price. Over the course of two months, Frank Jr "bought" 14 sets of tires, 22 batteries, and large quantities of gasoline.
The bill totaled US$3,400, which his father discovered only after a debt collector contacted him in person, as Frank Jr. was throwing away the bills that came in the mail. According to Catch Me If You Can, Frank Sr. was not angered with his son over the charges rung up, but merely puzzled as to his motive. Both he and the bill collector sympathized when Frank Jr. explained that "It's the girls, Dad, they do funny things to me. I can't explain it". However, Frank Jr. decided to rethink his ways and find new quick cash ideas, mainly because he saw that the gas card scam had hurt Frank Sr, a man he viewed as a hardworking businessman.
Bank fraudAbagnale's first confidence trick was writing personal checks on his own overdrawn account. This, however, would only work for a limited time before the bank demanded payment, so he moved on to opening other accounts in different banks, eventually creating new identities to sustain this charade. Over time, he experimented and developed different ways of defrauding banks, such as printing out his own almost-perfect copies of checks, depositing them and persuading banks to advance him cash on the basis of money in his accounts.
One of Abagnale's famous tricks was to print his account number on blank deposit slips and add them to the stack of real blank slips in the bank. This meant that the deposits written on those slips by bank customers ended up going into his account rather than that of the legitimate customers.
At a speech given to the students of Florida State University, Frank described one instance where he noticed the location where airlines and car rental businesses such as United Airlines and Hertz would drop off their daily collections of money in a zip-up bag and deposit it into a drop box on the airport premises. Using a security guard disguise he bought at a local costume shop, he put a sign over the box saying "out of service, place deposits with security guard on duty" and collected money that way. Later he disclosed how he could not believe this idea had actually worked, stating with some astonishment: "how can a drop box be out of service?" 
Airline pilotPan American World Airways estimated that between the ages of 16 and 18, Frank Abagnale flew over 1,000,000 miles on over 250 flights and flew to 26 countries, at Pan Am's expense, by deadheading. He was also able to stay at hotels for free during this time. Everything from food to lodging was billed to the airline. Abagnale stated that although he was often invited by actual pilots to take the controls in-flight, he never actually accepted their offers, instead using the "8 hours between the bottle and the throttle" rule as a convenient alibi.
Teaching assistantHe forged a Columbia University degree and taught sociology at Brigham Young University for a semester, working as a teaching assistant by the name of "Frank Adams".
DoctorFor nearly a year, he impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the alias of Frank Conners. He chose to do this after nearly being caught by police after leaving a flight in New Orleans. Aware of possible capture, he retired to Georgia for the time being. When filling out an application for an apartment he listed his previous occupation as "doctor" fearing that the owner might check with Pan Am if he had listed "pilot". After becoming friends with a real doctor who lived beneath him, he became a resident supervisor of interns as a favor for him until they found someone who could take the job. He did not find the job difficult because supervisors did not have to do any actual medical work. However, as a medical layman, Abagnale was nearly discovered after almost letting a baby die through oxygen deprivation (he had no idea what the nurse meant when she said there was a "blue baby"). Abagnale was able to fake his way through most of his duties by letting the interns handle most of the cases that came in during his late night shift, for example setting broken bones and other such tasks. Finally, the hospital found another replacement and he returned to the air. In an interview, he said that the supervisor had a death in the family and had to fly out West, during which Abagnale took the position. However, since they had trouble finding a permanent applicant, he stayed for three years.
AttorneyAbagnale forged a Harvard University law transcript, passed the bar exam of Louisiana and got a job at the office of the state attorney general of Louisiana at the age of nineteen. This happened while he was posing as Pan Am First Officer "Robert Black." He told a stewardess he had briefly dated that he was also a Harvard law student and she introduced him to a lawyer friend. Abagnale was told the bar needed more lawyers and was offered a chance to apply. After making a fake transcript from Harvard, he prepared himself for the compulsory exam. Despite failing twice, he claims to have passed the bar exam legitimately on the third try after 8 weeks of study, because "Louisiana at the time allowed you to take the Bar over and over as many times as you needed. It was really a matter of eliminating what you got wrong."
In his biography, he described the premise of his legal job as a "gopher boy" who simply fetched coffee and books for his boss. However, there was a real Harvard graduate who also worked for that attorney general, and he hounded Abagnale with questions about his tenure at Harvard. Naturally, Abagnale could not answer questions about a university he had never attended, and he later resigned after eight months to protect himself, after learning the suspicious graduate was making inquiries into his background.
Capture and imprisonmentEventually he was caught in France in 1969 when an Air France attendant whom he had dated in the past recognized him and notified the police. When the French police apprehended him, 12 of the countries in which he had committed fraud sought his extradition. After a two-day trial, he first served prison time in Perpignan's House of Arrest in France—a one-year sentence that was reduced by the presiding judge at his trial to six months. His stay in Perpignan left him fearful of spending more time in another version of the prison.
He was then extradited to Sweden where he was treated fairly well under Swedish law. During trial for forgery, his defense attorney almost had his case dismissed by arguing that he had "created" the fake checks and not forged them, but his charges were instead reduced to swindling and fraud. He served six months in a Malmö prison, only to learn at the end of it he would be tried next in Italy. Later, a Swedish judge asked a U.S. State Department official to revoke his passport. Without a valid passport Swedish authorities were legally compelled to deport him to the U.S., where he was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for multiple counts of forgery.
Alleged escapesWhile being extradited to the U.S., Abagnale escaped from a British VC-10 airliner as it was turning onto a taxi strip at New York's JFK International Airport. Under cover of night, he scaled a nearby fence and hailed a cab to Grand Central Terminal. After stopping in the Bronx to change clothes and pick up a set of keys to a Montreal bank safe deposit box containing US$20,000, Abagnale caught a train to Montreal's Dorval airport (now Montreal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport) to purchase a ticket to São Paulo, Brazil, a country with which the U.S. had no extradition treaty. On his way to Montreal he had a close call at a Mac's Milk in Dundas, Ontario. He was caught by a constable of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while standing in line at the ticket counter and subsequently handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Being sentenced to 12 years in the Federal Correction Institution at Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1971, Abagnale also reportedly escaped the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta, Georgia while awaiting trial, which he considers in his book to be one of the most infamous escapes in history. During the time, U.S. prisons were being condemned by civil rights groups and investigated by congressional committees. In a stroke of luck that included the accompanying U.S. marshal forgetting his detention commitment papers, Abagnale was mistaken for an undercover prison inspector and was even given privileges and food far better than the other inmates. The FDC in Atlanta had already lost two employees as a result of reports written by undercover federal agents, and Abagnale took advantage of their vulnerability. He contacted a friend (called in his book "Jean Sebring") who posed as his fiancée and slipped him the business card of "Inspector C.W. Dunlap" of the Bureau of Prisons which she had obtained by posing as a freelance writer doing an article on "fire safety measures in federal detention centers". She also handed over a business card from "Sean O'Riley" (later revealed to be Joe Shea), the FBI agent in charge of Abagnale's case, which she doctored at a stationery print shop. Abagnale told the corrections officers that he was indeed a prison inspector and handed over Dunlap's business card as proof. He told them that he needed to contact FBI Agent Sean O'Riley, on a matter of urgent business.
O'Riley's phone number (actually the number altered by Sebring) was dialed and picked up by Jean Sebring, at a payphone in an Atlanta shopping-mall, posing as an operator at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later, he was allowed to meet unsupervised with O'Riley in a predetermined car outside the detention center. Sebring, incognito, picked Abagnale up and drove him to an Atlanta bus station where he took a Greyhound bus to New York, and soon thereafter, a train to Washington, D.C.. Abagnale bluffed his way through an attempted capture by posing as an FBI agent after being recognized by a motel registration clerk. Still bent on making his way to Brazil, Abagnale was picked up a few weeks later by two New York City Police Department detectives when he inadvertently walked past their unmarked police car.
Legitimate jobsIn 1974, after he had served less than five years, the United States federal government released him on the condition that he would help the federal authorities without pay against crimes committed by fraud and scam artists, and sign in once a week. Not wanting to return to his family in New York, he left the choice of parole up to the court, and it was decided that he would be paroled in Texas.
After his release, Abagnale tried several jobs, including cook, grocer and movie projectionist, but he was fired from most of these upon having his criminal career discovered via background checks and not informing his employers that he was a former convict. Finding them unsatisfying, he approached a bank with an offer. He explained to the bank what he had done, and offered to speak to the bank's staff and show various tricks that "paperhangers" use to defraud banks. His offer included the condition that if they did not find his speech helpful, they would owe him nothing; otherwise, they would only owe him $50, with an agreement that they would provide his name to other banks. The banks were impressed by the results, and he began a legitimate life as a security consultant.
He later founded Abagnale & Associates, which advises businesses on fraud. Abagnale is now a millionaire through his legal fraud detection and avoidance consulting business based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Abagnale also continues to advise the FBI, with whom he has associated for over 35 years, by teaching at the FBI Academy and lecturing for FBI field offices throughout the country. According to his website, more than 14,000 institutions have adopted Abagnale's fraud prevention programs.
He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his wife, whom he married one year after becoming legitimate. They have three sons, including one who currently works for the FBI.
Veracity of claimsThe authenticity of Abagnale's criminal exploits were questioned even before the publishing of Catch Me If You Can. In 1978, after Abagnale had been a featured speaker at an anti-crime seminar, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter looked into his assertions. Phone calls to banks, schools, hospitals and other institutions Abagnale mentioned turned up no evidence of his cons under the aliases he used. Abagnale's response was that "Due to the embarrassment involved, I doubt if anyone would confirm the information."
In 2002, Abagnale himself addressed the issue of his story's truthfulness rather vaguely with a statement posted on his company's website. The statement said in part "I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography."
Media appearancesTo Tell the Truth, along with two contestants also presenting themselves as him. A reenactment of this episode appeared in Catch Me if You Can, featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio in his place.
In the early 1990s, Abagnale was featured as a recurring guest on the UK Channel 4 television series Secret Cabaret. The show was based around magic and illusions with a sinister, almost gothic presentation style. Abagnale was featured as an expert exposing various confidence tricks.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Abagnale in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can. The film is based on his exploits as described in his book of the same name (ISBN 978-0-7679-0538-1), but alters many aspects of his life story for dramatic purposes. The real Abagnale makes a cameo appearance in this film as one of the French police officers taking his character into custody.
In 2007, Abagnale appeared in a short role as a speaker in the BBC TV series The Real Hustle. He spoke of different scams run by fraudsters.
|Frank and His Wife|
BooksIn 2002, Abagnale wrote The Art of the Steal, listing common confidence tricks and ways to prevent consumers from being defrauded. He also talked about identity theft and the advent of Internet scamming.
- Catch Me If You Can, 2000. ISBN 978-0-7679-0538-1 (used as a source for most of the biography)
- The Art of the Steal, Broadway Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7679-0683-8
- Real U Guide To Identity Theft, 2004. ISBN 978-1932999013
- Stealing Your Life, Random House/Broadway Books, April 2007. ISBN 978-0767925860
- J'avais des ailes... mais je n'étais pas un ange (I Had Wings, But I Was Not An Angel), 1981, Éditions Alain Stanké. Published in French, the content of this book is identical to Catch Me If You Can.
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