Abagnale in 2008
Frank William Abagnale Jr.
April 27, 1948
Bronxville, New York, U.S.
|Citizenship||United States, France|
|Criminal charge(s)||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)
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. Abagnale escaped from police custody twice (once from a taxiing airliner and once from a U.S. federal penitentiary) before turning 22 years old. He served fewer than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government. Abagnale is currently a consultant and lecturer for the FBI academy and field offices. He also runs Abagnale and 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, both of 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 spent the first 16 years of his life in New Rochelle, New York. His French mother, Paulette, and father, Frank Abagnale Sr., separated when he was 12 and divorced when he was 16. His father was an affluent local who was very keen on politics and theater and was a role model for Abagnale Jr. From kindergarten, he was educated first at Iona Grammar School and then Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, graduating in 1966.
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. 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 amounting to $3,400, equivalent to $28,394 in 2019. 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 resulted in the deposits written on those slips by bank customers entering 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 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 worked, stating with some astonishment: "How can a drop box be out of service?"
Later Abagnale decided to impersonate a pilot 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 (as a passenger) more than 1,000,000 miles (1,600,000 km) on more than 250 flights and flew to 26 countries by deadheading. As a teenager, he noticed that his hair was graying, which he parlayed into his pilot persona by giving the appearance of being older and having more professional credentials than he did. 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. However, Abagnale did not fly on Pan Am planes, believing his charade could potentially be identified by real Pan Am pilots or employees who would be asked for genuine identification or proof of employment.
Abagnale stated that he was often invited by 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 favour until the local hospital could find someone else to take the job. The position was not solely administrative as he has since claimed, but was not demanding for Abagnale as seven interns were eager to get experience under his supervision. He was able to fake his way through most of his duties by letting the interns show off their handling of the cases coming in during his late-night shift. However, he was nearly exposed when an infant became critically unwell from oxygen deprivation and he didn't initially understand the meaning or gravity of the situation when a nurse informed him of a "blue baby". 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 the attorney general, and he hounded Abagnale with questions about his tenure at Harvard. Abagnale had trouble crafting a plausible story for himself as an undergraduate of a university he never attended, and the co-worker soon became suspicious, repeatedly interrogating Abagnale. Due to his doubts about his credentials, the co-worker had contacted Harvard in order to confirm Abagnale's academic qualifications. Finding none, he convinced his boss to launch a background check on Abagnale; however, Abagnale resigned before he could be exposed. He spent a total of eight months as a fake attorney.
Capture and imprisonment
Abagnale was eventually arrested in Montpellier, France, in 1969 when an Air France attendant he had 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.
He was then extradited to Sweden. 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 instead his charges were 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 United States, Abagnale escaped from a British VC-10 airliner as it was turning onto a taxiway at New York's John F. Kennedy 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 ($100,000 in today's money) 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. Subsequently, Abagnale was 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. 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 supposed telephone number (the number had been altered by Sebring) was dialed and the call was 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 the FBI agent in a predetermined car outside the detention center. Incognito, Sebring picked up Abagnale and instead 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 fewer 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 location up to the court, which decided that he would be paroled in Houston, 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 those jobs he was able to land 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.
In 2015, Abagnale was named the AARP Fraud Watch Ambassador, where he helps "to provide online programs and community forums to educate consumers about ways to protect themselves from identity theft and cybercrime." In 2018, he began co-hosting the AARP podcast The Perfect Scam about scammers and how they operate.
According to Abagnale, "It was hard to keep a low profile in a big city." He convinced his Federal handlers that he needed to move himself, his wife, Kelly, and three sons to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, he stopped making speeches and kept as low a profile as possible. He and his family lived in the same house for the next 25 years. His sons enrolled in Monte Cassino School and Bishop Kelley High School, both private parochial schools. After the sons left home for college and careers elsewhere, Kelly suggested that she and Frank should leave Tulsa. They agreed to move to Savannah, Georgia.
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 been associated for more than 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 U.S. 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. Telephone 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, "Due to the embarrassment involved, I doubt if anyone would confirm the information." He later said he had changed the names.
In 2002, Abagnale 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 television quiz show, To Tell the Truth, in 1977, along with two contestants presenting themselves as him. He was impersonated in turn by a Catholic priest and a manufacturer of police equipment, and was not unmasked by the panel.
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 and Abagnale was 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.
Abagnale cites meeting his wife as the motivation for changing his life. He told author Paul Stenning, "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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