The life story of con man turned professional security consultant Frank Abagnale Jr. would seem fanciful if it wasn’t actually true.
During a colorful life of crime he conned his way to hundreds of thousands of dollars, entered various professions illegitimately, and managed audacious escapes from law enforcement. After ‘going straight’ he became a security consultant for the FBI and a film was made based on his memoirs.
Opportunism, personality and forging expertise
Abagnale’s engaging personality, quick thinking, opportunism and forgery skills set him up for successful conning from an early age; amongst his forgery exploits was a Pan Am airline pilot ID, a Harvard University law transcript and many bogus checks.
At various times he gave law enforcement personnel the slip, including escaping from a taxiing airplane in New York.
An early start to a life of crime
Born in 1948, Abagnale started conning at age 15 when he scammed his own father by running up debts on his credit card to finance his dating life.
Following this, he forged checks and opened various bank accounts with fake identities to accept the bogus payments his falsified checks were ‘paying’ him. Abagnale also forged deposit slips supplied at bank branch counters so other people unwittingly paid money into his account when filling them in.
Another scam combined Abagnale’s opportunism and sheer audacity – noticing at airports airlines and car rental companies would leave cash at drop boxes in zip-up bags, he simply put up a sign reading ‘out of service: leave cash with security guard’ and stood there in his hired security guard costume helping himself to the money.
Abagnale scammed his way into various specialist professions including airline pilot, doctor and attorney.
Pilot – airlines had a policy of ‘deadheading’ where pilots could travel free on airplanes. Abagnale procured a uniform from Pan Am by pretending his had been lost at a hotel, forged a pilot’s ID and helped himself to over 250 flights worldwide along with hospitality as an airline ‘employee.’
He was still a teenager at the time but looked older due to graying hair.
Doctor – impulsively writing ‘doctor’ as his profession when applying for an apartment, Abagnale made friends with a real one in the same apartment block.
Amazingly, this new friend was taken in by Abagnale and offered him a position supervising new interns. Abagnale masked his total unsuitability for the profession by having the interns do all the work on cases, but after nearly being exposed on one occasion, he ‘left’ the profession.
Attorney – Abagnale was introduced to a lawyer who encouraged him to apply for the profession as they were short of legal staff.
He forged a Harvard University law transcript to ‘give’ himself a law degree and, after three attempts, passed the Louisiana bar exam. After a colleague became suspicious when Abagnale clearly knew little about Harvard – a university he purportedly attended – the conman resigned before a background check exposed him.
Luck runs out
After leaving to try a new life in France, Abagnale was arrested with 12 countries seeking his extradition.
After imprisonment in France and Sweden, he was deported to the US and sentenced to 12 years on various counts of fraud. On his return to face these charges he apparently escaped from a taxiing airplane in New York but was apprehended before he could leave the country.
One or two ingenious escapes followed but eventually Abagnale was sentenced and began serving his time. After five years of imprisonment, the US government released him in return for his helping them identify and investigate fraud and scam activities.
He approached banks with an offer to help them in a similar capacity and his legitimate career as a security consultant began.
Catch Me If You Can
Abagnale wrote about his notorious past in his 1980 book ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ In 2002, it was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks with Abagnale himself playing a cameo role and became a Broadway musical in 2011.