Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (/ˈæbəɡneɪl/; born April 27, 1948) is an American security consultant known for his history as a former confidence trickster, check forger, and impostor between the ages of 15 and 21. He became one of the most famous impostors ever, claiming to have assumed no fewer than eight identities, including an airline pilot, a physician, 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 less than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government. He is currently a consultant and lecturer for the FBI academy and field offices. He also runs Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company.
Abagnale’s life story inspired the Academy Award-nominated feature film Catch Me If You Can (2002), starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale, as well as a Broadway musical, which are based on his autobiography of the same name.
Frank William Abagnale, Jr. was born on April 27, 1948. He is one 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., separated when he was twelve and divorced when he was fourteen. His father was an affluent local who was very keen on politics and theater, and was a role model for Abagnale, Jr.
His first victim was his father, who gave Abagnale a gasoline credit card and a truck to assist him in commuting to his part-time job. In order to get date money, Abagnale devised a scheme in which he used the gasoline card to “buy” tires, batteries, and other car-related items at gas stations and then asked the attendants to give him cash in return for the products. Ultimately, his father was liable for a bill worth $3,400. Abagnale was only 15 at the time.
Abagnale’s early confidence tricks included 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 at different banks, eventually creating new identities to sustain this charade. Over time through experimentation, he developed different ways of defrauding banks, such as printing out his own almost-perfect copies of checks such as payroll checks, depositing them, and encouraging banks to advance him cash on the basis of his account balances. Another trick he used 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 entered his account rather than the accounts of the legitimate customers.
In a speech, Abagnale described an occasion when 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 then deposit them 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 in that manner. 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?”
Later, Abagnale decided to impersonate pilots because he wanted to fly throughout the world for free. He acquired a uniform by calling Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), telling the company that he was a pilot working for them who had lost his uniform while getting it cleaned at his hotel, and obtaining a new one with a fake employee ID. He then forged a Federal Aviation Administration pilot’s license. Pan Am estimated that between the ages of 16 and 18, Abagnale flew more than 1,000,000 miles (1,600,000 km) on more than 250 flights and flew to 26 countries by deadheading. As a company pilot, he was also able to stay at hotels for free during this time. Everything from food to lodging was billed to the airline company.
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 ft (9,100 m). 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 claimed that he worked as a sociology teaching assistant at Brigham Young University for a semester, under the name Frank Adams. Brigham Young University, however, disputes this claim.
For 11 months, Abagnale impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the alias Frank Williams. 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 a supervisor of resident 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 because 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. He left the hospital only after he realized he could put lives at risk by his inability to respond to life-and-death situations.
While posing as Pan Am First Officer “Robert Black”, Abagnale forged a Harvard University law transcript, passed the Louisiana bar exam, and got a job at the Louisiana State Attorney General’s office at the age of nineteen. He told a flight attendant he had briefly dated that he was also a Harvard Law School 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, a real Harvard graduate 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. Eight months later he resigned after learning the man was making inquiries into his background.
Capture and Imprisonment
Abagnale was eventually arrested in Montpellier, France, in 1969 when an Air France attendant he previously dated recognized him and informed police. When the French police arrested him, 12 countries in which he had committed fraud sought his extradition. After a two-day trial, he first served time in Perpignan‘s prison—a one-year sentence that the presiding judge at his trial reduced 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 strictly limited.
He was then extradited to Sweden, where he was treated more humanely 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. Following another conviction, 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 taxiway 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 $20,000, Abagnale caught a train to Montreal’s Dorval airport to purchase a ticket to São Paulo, Brazil. After a close call at a Mac’s Milk, he was apprehended by a constable of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while standing in line at the ticket counter. Abagnale was subsequently handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
In April 1971, Abagnale reportedly escaped from the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta, Georgia, while awaiting trial. In his book, Abagnale considers this 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 Federal Department of Corrections 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 Joseph 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 then bluffed his way through an attempted capture by posing as an FBI agent after being recognized by a motel registration clerk. Still intent 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 of his 12-year sentence at Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia, the United States federal government released him on the condition that he help the federal authorities, without pay, to investigate crimes committed by fraud and scam artists, and sign in once a week. Unwilling 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 numerous jobs, including cook, grocer, and movie projectionist, but he was fired from most of these after it was discovered he had been hired without revealing his criminal past. Finding these jobs 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 them 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 owe him only $500 with an agreement that they would provide his name to other banks. With that, he began a legitimate life as a security consultant.
He later founded Abagnale & Associates, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which advises companies on fraud issues. Abagnale also continues to advise the FBI, with whom he has associated for over 40 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.
Abagnale testified before the US Senate in November 2012 about the vulnerabilities of senior citizens to fraud, particularly stressing the ubiquitous use of Social Security numbers for identification included on Medicare cards.
Veracity of Claims
The authenticity of Abagnale’s criminal exploits was questioned even before the publication 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 with a statement posted on his company’s website which 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.”
Abagnale appeared on the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth in 1977, along with two contestants presenting themselves as him.
In the early 1990s Abagnale was featured as a recurring guest on the UK television series The Secret Cabaret, produced by Open Media for Channel 4. The show dealt with magic and illusions; Abagnale featured as an expert exposing various confidence tricks.
Abagnale’s semi-autobiographic book, Catch Me If You Can, was turned into a movie, of the same name, by Steven Spielberg in 2002, featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. The real Abagnale made a cameo appearance in this film as a French police officer taking DiCaprio into custody. This movie eventually became the basis for a musical, of the same name, which opened in 2011 with Aaron Tveit as Abagnale. The musical received four Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical, winning Best Actor In A Musical for Norbert Leo Butz.
In 2016, Abagnale appeared in a television commercial for IBM.
Abagnale lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife Kelly, whom he met while working undercover for the FBI. They have three sons, Scott, Chris, and Sean. Scott works for the FBI. Abagnale and Joseph Shea, the FBI agent on whom the character of Carl Hanratty (played by Tom Hanks) was based in the film Catch Me If You Can, remained close friends until Shea’s death.
Real U Guide to Identity Theft, 2004. ISBN 978-1-932999-01-3.
Stealing Your Life, Random House/Broadway Books, April 2007. ISBN 978-0-7679-2586-0.