Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Patrick Lynch - March 1, 2017

Frank Abagnale Jr. is one of the most famous con artists in history. Some say he is the best, although pedants would point out that the best confidence tricksters are the ones you’ve never heard about. Nonetheless, Abagnale led an extraordinary life where he assumed up to eight identities, cashed approximately $2.5 million worth of bad checks (his estimate), and lived a fast-paced life filled with drama and suspense; all by the time, he was 21 years old. The movie ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is based on his life story, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the role of Abagnale.

Early Life

He was born on April 27, 1948, in New York and his father, Frank Sr., and mother, Paulette, divorced when he was 14 years old. Abagnale was extremely close to his father, and he viewed him as a role model. He used to attend business meetings with his father, and this is where he learned details about business transactions. Despite having a relatively stable childhood, Abagnale soon resorted to petty crimes such as shoplifting. However, he quickly grew bored of it and sought a greater criminal challenge.

Ironically, Abagnale’s father was the first victim of his con artist career. When he was 15, he called various gas stations and told the owners to ring him up for merchandise (such as tires), but gave him a cash sum well below the real value of the products. Abagnale used his father’s charge card for the scam for about a month, until his father received a bill for $3,400. What Abagnale didn’t know was that his father was struggling financially.

His mother sent him to a school for ‘troubled boys,’ and during that period his father lost his business. Meanwhile, Abagnale left home at the age of 16 and earned just $1.50 an hour for his first job. He believed the low pay was due to his age rather than the lack of a high school degree, so he altered his ID to pretend he was 10 years older.

Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.
DiCaprio and Abagnale. HistoryvsHollywood

The Beginning of a Crime Spree

Abagnale was a master check forger and was apparently the first to exploit the routing of checks via the numbers on the code line. However, he had difficulties at the beginning because the practice of writing bad checks and overdrawing his account only happened for so long before banks demanded payment.

As a result, it was necessary to use innovative methods of conning people out of money. On one occasion, he took a batch of bank deposit slips, prefilled his account number and placed them back in the stack. The reason? Abagnale noticed that most people left the account number section blank, but the banks always went by the section if it was filled. The next morning, he woke up to find $42,000 in his account.

Abagnale soon realized that he would have more success with his bad checks if he could showcase an air of authority. He knew that pilots were well-respected individuals, so he used his cunning to acquire a uniform. It was here that his career as a con artist quite literally ‘took off.’

The Flying Conman

Abagnale rang Pan American World Airways and claimed he was a pilot who lost his uniform when it was getting cleaned at a hotel. He used a fake employee ID to complete the con and forged a Federal Aviation Administration pilot’s license. While the movie made it appear as if it was a simple process, it was anything but. Abagnale had to collect his uniform at the airport and was terrified that other staff would discover he was a teenager. He posed as a businessman to get a security badge and pretended to be a pilot named Frank Williams to acquire his FAA license.

According to Pan Am, Abagnale flew on over 250 flights as a fake pilot; clocking over 1 million miles and visiting 26 countries. He benefited from the process of ‘deadheading,’ whereby a company employee (in this case Pan Am) could catch a free flight by simply showing their ID. Abagnale managed to get a group of college students to work as stewardesses as a means of eliminating suspicions; the women were the misdirection he needed to complete his cons.

Although he was flying as a passenger, pilots occasionally offered him the controls as a courtesy in-flight. On one such occasion, Abagnale accepted the offer but promptly put the plane on autopilot because, in his words, he ‘couldn’t fly a kite.’

Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.
Abagnale and his old stewardess crew. Konbini

Capture & Life on the Straight and Narrow

Abagnale worked as a physician under the alias Frank William for 11 months in a Georgia hospital after narrowly evading capture as a pilot. He even worked the night shift as a practicing pediatrician, but fortunately, no emergencies occurred during his watch.

While the movie suggests he passed the Louisiana bar exam to become a lawyer with just two weeks of study, it actually took three attempts and seven months of study. Abagnale pretended to be a graduate from Harvard and worked as a ‘gopher’ boy for several months before leaving when he discovered a colleague was performing a background check on him.

Eventually, he moved to Montpellier, France and tried to ‘go straight.’ Unfortunately for him, a stewardess (and ex-girlfriend) recognized his face on a wanted poster and alerted the authorities. Abagnale served time in France, Sweden, and the United States and performed two daring escapes during this period. The first came while he was being deported to the United States, but he was apprehended by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable. On this occasion, Abagnale claimed to have escaped from the VC10 jetliner he was on via the bathroom as the plane landed. However, employees of the Aerospace Industries Association said it is impossible because the hatch is sealed shut.

During a stint in a Federal Detention Center in Georgia, Abagnale pretended to be an undercover prison inspector. As a result, he received better food and treatment than everyone else. Eventually, he approached the guards, ‘confirmed’ that he was an undercover agent, and requested a phone call to speak to an FBI agent. His girlfriend at the time posed as the agent on the phone and arranged a meeting. They drove away together in a childishly simple escape which was supposedly covered up by the authorities.

He even evaded capture one more time by posing as an FBI agent, but he was eventually arrested and sent to prison. Abagnale was released early when he agreed to a U.S. Government request to teach them about ways to prevent other con artists from successfully committing fraud. After being hired and fired from several jobs once his criminal past was revealed, he set up Abagnale & Associates in Oklahoma. The organization advises companies on fraud, and some 14,000 businesses have adopted his anti-fraud measures. To this day, Abagnale works with the FBI and teaches at their Academy.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Reel Rundown – Catch Me If You Can Is a Movie Based on the Real-Life Story of Frank Abagnale

WHYY – Could This Famous Con Man Be Lying About His Story?

Screenrant – Catch Me If You Can: 5 Things Based on The True Story & 5 Creative Liberties Taken)

Slashflim – The Fascinating True (And Not So True) Story Behind Catch Me If You Can

Mental Floss – 12 Fast Facts About Catch Me If You Can

Esquire Magazine – Was the Story of Catch Me If You Can Frank Abagnale Jr.’s Greatest Con?

Wired – Frank Abagnale on The Death of The Con Artist and The Rise of Cybercrime

Business Insider – The Greatest Cons Ever Pulled Off by Frank Abagnale Jr.

Hubpages – Frank Abagnale, The World’s Youngest Bank Defrauder

US News – How Frank Abagnale Would Swindle You

LA Times – The Truth? Just Try to Catch It If You Can