Frank William Abagnale Jr.
April 27, 1948
Bronx, NY, U.S.
|Citizenship||United States, France|
|Occupation||Secure document consultant|
|Criminal charge(s)||Auto larceny, theft, forgery, fraud|
Frank William Abagnale Jr. (//; born April 27, 1948) is an American author and convicted felon. According to Abagnale, he began to con people and pass bad checks when he was 15 years old. During his teens and early twenties he was arrested multiple times and was convicted and imprisoned in the United States and Europe. Abagnale co-wrote a 1980 book on his life that inspired the 2002 film of the same name, Catch Me If You Can. He has also written four other books. Abagnale runs Abagnale and Associates, a consultancy firm.
The veracity of most of Abagnale's claims has been questioned; easily verifiable evidence i.e. court documents shows his real life timeline does not match his claims. In 2002, Abagnale admitted on his website that some facts had been over-dramatized or exaggerated, though he was not specific about what was exaggerated or omitted about his life. In 2020, journalist Alan C. Logan provided documentary evidence that the majority of Abagnale's claims had at best been wildly exaggerated, and at worst completely invented.
|Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale's Story, Frank Abagnale, 1:02:27, WGBH Educational Foundation|
Frank William Abagnale Jr. was born in The Bronx, New York, on April 27, 1948, to an Algerian mother and an Italian American father. He spent his early life in Bronxville, New York. His parents separated when he was 12 and divorced when he was 15 years old. After the divorce, Abagnale moved with his father, and his new stepmother, to Mount Vernon, New York.
According to Abagnale, his first victim was his father, who gave Abagnale a gasoline credit card and a truck and was ultimately liable for a bill amounting to $3,400. Abagnale was only 15 at the time. In his autobiography Abagnale says, because of this crime, he was sent to a reform school in Westchester County, New York (fitting the description of the Lincolndale Agricultural School) run by Catholic Charities USA.
In 1965, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Abagnale in Eureka, California for car theft after he stole a Ford Mustang from one of his father's neighbors. Abagnale was pictured in the local newspaper, seated in a car, being questioned by special agent Richard Miller of the FBI. He had financed his cross-country trip from New York to California by dropping bad checks in towns along the way. Abagnale was also charged with impersonating a US customs official, although this charge was dropped. On June 2, 1965, this stolen car case was transferred to the Southern District of New York.
After being released into the custody of his father to face the stolen car charges, 17-year-old Abagnale decided to impersonate a pilot. He obtained a uniform at a Manhattan uniform company, but was arrested in Tuckahoe, New York days later. Abagnale was sentenced to three years at the Great Meadow Prison in Comstock, New York. After serving only two years of his sentence, he was released into the custody of his mother. However, he broke the terms of his parole with a stolen car conviction in Boston, Massachusetts, and was returned to Great Meadow for one year.
After his release on December 24, 1968, he disguised himself as a TWA pilot and moved to Baton Rouge where he talked his way into the house of a local music teacher, the father of a Delta Air Lines stewardess he had met in New York. He was arrested on February 14, 1969, for forgery and theft after stealing checks from his host family and cashing checks in his own name at various airport hotels. Unable to make bail, he was convicted on June 2, 1969, and was sentenced to 12 years of supervised probation, but he soon fled Louisiana for Europe.
Two weeks after the Louisiana bench warrant was issued, Abagnale was arrested in Montpellier, France, in September 1969. He had stolen an automobile and defrauded two local families in Klippan, Sweden. He was sentenced to four months for theft in France, but only served three months in Perpignan's prison.
He was then extradited to Sweden where he was convicted of gross fraud by forgery. He served two months in a Malmö prison and was banned from returning to Sweden for eight years and required to recompense his Swedish victims (which he never did). Abagnale was deported back to the United States in June 1970 when his appeal failed.
After returning to the United States, 22-year-old Abagnale dressed in a pilot's uniform and travelled around college campuses, passing bad checks and claiming he was there to recruit stewardesses for Pan Am. At the University of Arizona, he stated that he was a pilot and a doctor, and according to Paul Holsen, a student at the time, Abagnale conducted physical examinations on several female college students who wanted to be part of flight crews. None of the women were ever enrolled in Abagnale's fictional program.
After Abagnale cashed a personal check dressed up as a Pan Am paycheck, on July 30th, 1970, in Durham, North Carolina, he came to the attention of the FBI. He was arrested in Cobb County, Georgia, 3 months later, on November 2nd, 1970, after cashing 10 fake Pan Am payroll checks in different towns. Abagnale escaped from the Cobb County jail and was picked up 4 days later in New York City. He was sentenced to ten years in 1971 for forging checks that totaled $1,448.60 and he received an additional two years for escaping from jail.
In 1974, Abagnale was released on parole after he had served around two years of his 12-year sentence at Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia. 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 stated that he performed 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. He again posed as a pilot in 1974 to obtain a job at Camp Manison, a summer children's camp in Texas where he was arrested for stealing cameras from his co-workers. After he received only a fine, he obtained a position at an orphanage in Houston by pretending to be a pilot with a master's degree. His next position was at Aetna, where he was fired and sued for check fraud.
According to Abagnale, he approached a bank with an offer in 1975. 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 new career as a speaker and a security consultant. During this time, he falsified his resume to show he had worked with the Los Angeles Police Department and Scotland Yard.
He moved his wife, Kelly, and three sons to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his family lived in the same house for the next 25 years. After the sons left home for college and careers elsewhere, Kelly suggested that she and Frank should leave Tulsa. They agreed to move to Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1976, he founded Abagnale & Associates, which advises companies on fraud issues. 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.
He has appeared in the media a variety of times. This includes three times as guest on The Tonight Show, an appearance on To Tell the Truth in 1977  and a regular slot on the British network TV series The Secret Cabaret in the 1990s. 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.
Veracity of claims
During his appearances on television and in his speeches, Abagnale has often embellished his criminal exploits, stating that he was wanted in 12 countries, has worked extensively for the FBI and escaped several times from FBI custody. He also claimed that he cashed $2.5 million in bad checks and worked as an assistant attorney general and a hospital physician. In addition, he stated that he started a fake stewardess trainee program and logged over 2 million air miles disguised as a pilot.
In public lectures describing his life story, Abagnale has consistently maintained that he was "arrested just once", and that was in Montpellier, France. However, public records show Abagnale was arrested in New York (multiple times), California, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas.
Despite public records showing Abagnale targeted individuals and small family businesses, Abagnale has long claimed publicly that he "never, ever ripped off any individuals''. He made the same claim of never targetting individuals and small businesses to BBC journalist Sarah Montague and the Associated Press
Journalist Ira Perry was unable to find any evidence that Abagnale worked with the FBI; according to one retired FBI Special agent in charge, Abagnale was caught trying to pass personal checks in 1978 several years after he claimed that he began working with the FBI. Dating back to the 1980s Abagnale claimed that Joseph Shea, an FBI agent, had pursued him for 5 years (between 1965 and 1970). Abagnale claimed that Shea befriended and supervised him during his parole. However, when Catch Me If You Can was released in theatres, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Abagnale and Shea only reunited in the late 1980s, almost 20 years after Shea arrested him. Abagnale spotted Shea at an anticrime seminar in Kansas City and sought out Shea to shake his hand.
His claim that he passed the Louisiana bar exam, worked for Attorney General Jack P. F. Gremillion, and closed 33 cases, was debunked by several journalists in 1978. There is no record of Abagnale ever being a member of the Louisiana Bar and no evidence he ever worked as an assistant attorney general in Louisana's Attorney General Office. In 1978, the Louisiana State Bar Association reconciled all those who took the bar exam and concluded that Abagnale never took the exam using his own name or an alias; the State Attorney General's Office examined payments to all employees during the time Abagnale claimed he worked there and concluded that he never worked in the office using his name or an alias. After Abagnale appeared on The Tonight Show, then-First Assistant Attorney General Ken DeJean gave a reporter a series of questions to ask Abagnale about the description of then-Attorney General Jack P. F. Gremillion. Abagnale failed to answer the questions correctly.
Abagnale has publicly claimed an Intelligence quotient (IQ) of 140: "I have an I.Q. of 140 and retain 90 percent of what I read. So by studying and memorizing the bar exam I was able to get the needed score." In 2021 Abagnale gave the keynote at the American Mensa Conference in Houston, Texas. The organizers claimed he was the subject of an FBI manhunt and cashed millions of dollars worth of checks while impersonating a pilot and doctor.
One of Abagnale's most notable claims was an alleged escape from the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta in 1971. In 1982 Abagnale told the press, "I was and still am the only and youngest man to escape from that prison." However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed that Abagnale was never housed in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary: "he was never admited, so I don't really see how he could have escaped" said acting warden Dwight Amstutz.
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.
Further doubts were raised about Abagnale's story after an October 1978 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, with a news article saying:
Abagnale is indeed a convicted confidence artist. But he is finding willing believers as he promotes and invents a more varied criminal past.
In December 1978, Abagnale's claims were again investigated after he visited Oklahoma City for a talk. As part of his investigation into the story, Perry spoke with Pan Am spokesperson Bruce Haxthausen, who responded to the journalists' enquiry saying:
This is the first we've heard of this, and we would have heard of or at least remember[ed] it if it had happened. You don't forget $2.5 million in bad checks. I'd say this guy is as phony as a $3 bill.— Ira Perry, The Daily Oklahoman, "Inquiry Shows 'Reformed' Con Man Hasn't Quit Yet", December 10, 1978
In 2002, Abagnale addressed the issue of his story's lack of 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." However, Abagnale made the primary claims of working as a doctor for a year, an attorney for a year, a PhD professor, and his several escapes on national television in 1977 on the show To Tell the Truth. He also made these claims in print media, namely the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, three years before the publication of his co-authored autobiography, effectively nullifying the claim his aforementioned co-author, Stan Redding, exaggerated the story.
In 2006, KSL journalist Scott Haws challenged Abagnale with his claim that he worked as a PhD-holding sociology professor at Brigham Young University for two semesters. Abagnale claimed that he couldn't recall the details, and that his co-author Redding had exaggerated some things. Haws "refreshed Frank's memory" and showed him his own words, including the Catch Me if You Can Moviebook and the credits that rolled at the end of the film Catch Me if You Can, where Abagnale, not Redding, made the BYU professor claim. Abagnale conceded to Haws that he might have been a guest lecturer.
So despite claiming to be a sociology professor in at least three books, two solely written by Abagnale himself, and an on-camera claim following the movie, it appears Abagnale as a BYU professor is mostly or entirely just another real fake.— Scott Haws, Did Frank Abignale [sic] Really Teach at BYU?, April 27, 2006, KSL-TV
In 2020, journalist Alan C. Logan made an in-depth investigation as part of publishing a book on Abagnale's life story, finding earlier newspaper articles that cast doubt on Abagnale's story and locating numerous administrative documents that contradicted many of Abagnale's claims. Logan's investigation found that Abagnale's claims were, for the most part, fabrications. Documents show that Abagnale was in Great Meadow Prison in Comstock, New York, between the ages of 17 to 20 (July 26, 1965, and December 24, 1968) as inmate #25367, the time frame during which Abagnale would claim to have committed his most significant scams. Logan's investigation uncovered numerous petty crimes that Abagnale has never acknowledged, and with Logan giving evidence to argue that many of Abagnale's most famous scams in fact never occurred.
Abagnale has told the press, "I was convicted on 2.5 million dollars worth of bad checks" and that he later hired a law firm to get all the money back to hotels and other companies. However, federal court records show that Abagnale was convicted of forging 10 Pan American Airlines checks in five states (Texas, Arizona, Utah, California and North Carolina), totalling less than US$1,500. Following parole, he claimed he went to work for the FBI. Logan found no evidence to support Abagnale's claims, including the assertion that he was included in a coffee table book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the FBI.
Abagnale cites meeting his wife as the motivation for changing his life. He told author Paul Stenning that he met her while working undercover for the FBI when she was a cashier at a grocery store. Abagnale has stated that 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, was his close friend until Shea's death.
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