Abagnale, Frank - "Catch Me if You Can"
"Catch Me If You Can"
Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (born April 27, 1948) is an American security consultant known for his history as a former confidence trickster, check forger, impostor, and escape artist. He became notorious in the 1960s for passing $2.5 million worth of meticulously forged checks across 26 countries over the course of five years, beginning when he was 16 years old.
In the process, he became one of the most famous impostors ever, claiming to have assumed no fewer than eight separate identities as an airline pilot, a doctor, a U.S. 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.
He served fewer than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government. He is a consultant and lecturer at the academy and field offices for the FBI. He also runs Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company.
Abagnale's life story provided the inspiration for the feature film Catch Me If You Can, as well as the Broadway musical with the same name, which opened in April 2011, and ghostwritten autobiography of the same name.
His first victim was his father who gave Frank a gas credit card and a truck to assist him in commuting to his part-time job. Frank Jr. devised a scheme to help pay for his dates with women. He used the credit card to "buy" tires, batteries, and other car-related items at gas stations. He made a deal with the attendants in which they gave him cash in return for them keeping the products. Ultimately, his father was liable for a bill of several thousand dollars.
Abagnale'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.
In a speech, 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?"
Pan American World Airways estimated that between the ages of 16 and 18, 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 he was often invited by actual pilots to take the controls of the plane in-flight. On one occasion, he was offered the courtesy of flying at 30,000 feet. He took the controls, and enabled the autopilot, "very much aware that I had been handed custody of 140 lives, my own included ... because I couldn't fly a kite".
He 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.
For eleven months he impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the alias Frank Conners. He chose this course after he was nearly arrested disembarking a flight in New Orleans. Afraid of possible capture, he retired temporarily to Georgia. When filling out a rental application he impulsively listed his occupation as "doctor", fearing that the owner might check with Pan Am if he wrote "pilot". After befriending a real doctor who lived in the same apartment complex, he agreed to act as resident supervisor of interns as a favor until the local hospital could find someone else to take the job. The position was not difficult for Abagnale because supervisors did no real medical work. However, he was nearly exposed when an infant almost died from oxygen deprivation; he had no idea what a nurse meant when she said there was a "blue baby". He was able to fake his way through most of his duties by letting the interns handle the cases coming in during his late-night shift, setting broken bones and other mundane tasks. When the hospital found a replacement he returned to piloting, leaving only after he realized he could put lives at risk by his inability to respond to situations like the blue baby.
Abagnale forged a Harvard University law transcript, passed the bar exam of Louisiana and got a job at the Louisiana Attorney General's office 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 eight 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 imprisonment
Abagnale was eventually caught in France in 1969 when an Air France attendant 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. At Perpignan he was held nude in a tiny, filthy, lightless cell that he was never allowed to leave. The cell lacked toilet facilities, a mattress, or a blanket, and food and water were severely restricted.
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, the Swedish authorities were legally compelled to deport him to the United States, where he was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for multiple counts of forgery.
While being deported 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 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 later 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 NYPD detectives when he inadvertently walked past their unmarked police car.
In 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 $500 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 Charleston, South Carolina with his wife, whom he married one year after becoming legitimate. They have three sons, including one who currently works for the FBI.
Abagnale and Joe Shea, the FBI agent on whom the character of Carl Hanratty was based for the film Catch Me If You Can, remained close friends until Shea's death.
Veracity of claims
The 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."