Abagnale in 2008
Frank William Abagnale Jr.
April 27, 1948
Bronxville, New York, U.S.
|Criminal charge||Fraud, forgery, swindling|
|Criminal penalty||12 months in French prison (about 6 months served)|
6 months in Swedish prison
12 years in US prison (4 years served)
|Spouse(s)||Kelly Anne Welbes|
Frank William Abagnale Jr. (//; born April 27, 1948) is an American security consultant known for his background as a former con man, check forger, and impostor between the ages of 15 and 21. He became one of the most notorious impostors, 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 story inspired the Academy Award-nominated feature film Catch Me If You Can (2002), starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent pursuing him, as well as a Broadway musical of that name and a TV series White Collar, which are based on the book Catch Me If You Can.
|Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale's Story, Frank Abagnale, 1:02:27, WGBH Educational Foundation|
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 New Rochelle, New York. His French mother, Paulette, and father, Frank Abagnale Sr., separated when he was twelve and divorced when he was sixteen. His father was an affluent local who was very keen on politics and theater, and was a role model for Abagnale Jr. His primary school education was in a Catholic school.
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, equivalent to $27,825 in 2018. 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 and through experimentation, he developed different ways of defrauding banks, such as printing out his own 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 magnetically 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 a pilot in order to look more legitimate when cashing checks. He obtained 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 number. He then forged a Federal Aviation Administration pilot's license. Pan Am estimated that between the ages of 16–18, 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 free during this time. Expenses such as food or lodging were billed to the airline company. Notably, however, Abagnale did not fly on Pan Am planes – believing his charade could potentially be identified by actual Pan Am pilots possessing actual company identification and background.
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."
For eleven 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 from 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 a mattress, plumbing, and electricity, 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 (now Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International 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. 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 $50 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." He later said he had changed the names.
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."
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.
The book about Abagnale, 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.
In 2017, Abagnale appeared in Talks at Google. In an hour long talk consisting of 'his own point of view on his real personal life' and answers to several audience' questions, he dwells in detail about his juvenile adventures, family relations, life as both a con and later as a government official and what is to happen to the global security scenario within the upcoming five years or so.
In 2018, Abagnale appeared in a televised Blockchain Nation Conference in Miami, sponsored by AMREC (American Renewable Energy Corporation), where he spoke about blockchain technology. His quote "I think you would have to be pretty ignorant not to realise that blockchain is the way for the future, it is the best way to secure information 100 percent, so I think you will see banks, especially accounting practices and accounting firms, all move to the blockchain, keeping records through blockchain. It will be the best way to do so because you cannot break the blockchain, you cannot hack into the blockchain, you can’t change anything in the blockchain." was identified as noteworthy by Yahoo Finance and Fortune Magazine
In January 2019, it was revealed that actor Danny DeVito would portray Abagnale in an eight-part HBO documentary called "The Art of the Steal: Abagnale". The documentary is set to release on February 4th 2019.
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 cites meeting his wife as the motivation for changing his life. He has said, "She met me as someone else with a completely different background and when the assignment was over I had broken protocol, because you’re never supposed to do this, but I told her who I really was because I wanted to continue to see her. She accepted what I told her and eventually we got married and have been married ever since."
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