Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the smash hit Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale Jr is recognised as one of the best con artists and fraudsters in history - and he achieved it all before his 21st birthday.
Born in April 1948, in New York, Frank Jr was close to his businessman father and would tag along to business dealings.
At 15, he concocted his first scheme. Frank Sr had given his son a credit card to buy petrol. Instead, he used it to ‘buy’ car products, then convinced the attendants to give him cash. He was caught when his father received the huge bill.
Horrified, his French mother sent Frank Jr to a school for wayward boys. Shortly after, Frank Sr’s business went under and his parents divorced. Devastated, Frank Jr, 16, ran away from home. Because of his young age, he struggled to get jobs. Yet, he looked much older than 16. So he altered his date of birth on his driving licence to make himself 10 years older. He also exaggerated his education, but still struggled.
Desperate, he resorted to cheque fraud. He’d open bank accounts using false names, write out cheques, and disappear before they bounced. Before long, he’d written hundreds of bad cheques, and also started forging them. Realising it was easier to cash the cheques if he dazzled bank staff, he scammed himself a Pan American Airlines uniform, began impersonating a pilot.
He forged a pilot’s ID and licence, discovered he could hitch rides all over the world. His forgeries spilled over the million-dollar mark, and the FBI launched an investigation.The Press nicknamed Abagnale ‘the Skywayman’. He’d cash forged pay cheques, move on to the next city before the FBI could pick up the paper trail.
After a few close calls, Abagnale fled to Atlanta, Georgia, where he took on another alias, as a doctor. He forged qualifications, got hired as a paediatrician in a hospital. Supervising interns, he managed to fake his way through shifts. But when a baby nearly died, he left.
Next, he travelled to Louisiana, forged a Harvard Law degree, and actually passed the bar exam. Abagnale worked for the Attorney General for eight months – but, moved on when a real Harvard graduate asked questions.
For the next two years, he bounced from job to job, forging cheques to get by. He had a taste for the ladies, too, and at one point hired several as air hostesses – as cover while he travelled the world.
Abagnale’s past finally caught up with him when he settled in France in 1969. A former stewardess recognised his face on a wanted poster. Then 21, Abagnale was arrested, spent six months in a French prison. He spent another six months in a Swedish jail before being deported to the US.
Despite escape attempts, Frank Abagnale Jr was jailed for 12 years for forgery. Over five years, he’d forged $2.5million (around £2million) in cheques, and used eight aliases. After serving five years, he was paroled on the condition he helped the FBI hunt down fraudsters. Frank Abagnale Jr, now 69, has become one of the world’s most respected authorities on fraud and forgery. In his book Stealing Your Life, he calls his past a ‘foolish teenage infatuation with perpetuating swindles’.
The movie take…
Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated Catch Me If You Can (2002), stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr. It’s based on Abagnale’s own 1980 memoir of the same name and, while some events are exaggerated, it follows his actual life between 1964 and 1974.
Tom Hanks is FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who pursues Abagnale. Hanks’ character is actually a composite of several FBI agents, including Special Agent Joseph Shea. Similar to Hanratty, Shea first believed Abagnale was an experienced criminal in his 30s, rather than a teenager.
In the film, Abagnale escapes from a plane by removing the toilet and climbing beneath it, then out of a hatch onto the tarmac. This event is in Frank’s memoir, but experts claim it would be impossible.
Frank Abagnale Jr has a cameo as a French policeman in the film.