Conman or Genius
He's been called the greatest check swindler of the Twentieth century and the modern day Robin Hood. He really did steal from the rich - very successfully. He had a ball for 5 years flying round the world scot free, passing dud cheques to the value of $14 million in 26 countries and enjoying the friendship of the rich and beautiful. Not only did he successfully steal millions of dollars, but he also, at various times created the identity of, and actually worked and lived as, an airline pilot, a teacher, a lawyer and a doctor. And all before he was 21 years old.
He was at first phenomenally successful, but eventually and inevitably got caught and spent many years in prison in several different countries. When released, he was still young enough to start afresh and he created a highly successful business specialising in...yes, you've guessed it, bank security.
His story is astonishing but everything is true, and it even has a happy ending.
Let's start at the beginning....
Early Days, Early Trouble
Frank W. Abagnale Jr. was born in New York on April 27, 1948. His father ran a flourishing stationery store on Madison Avenue.
Frank Jr. had an uncomplicated early childhood and was particularly close to his father. When he was 16 his life was changed forever by the separation and eventual divorce of his parents. Following the breakup, Frank Jr. chose to live alone with his father after moving from the family home in Bronxville, New York. . Frank Sr. would sometimes take his son with him on business outings where he'd meet up with other prominent businessmen, street-wise blue collar workers and politicians. Frank Jr. learned a great deal from his interactions with his father's associates, which greatly contributed to his already burgeoning store of knowledge. Yet, although Frank Jr. showed obvious signs of high intellect, it didn't prevent him from getting into trouble during his teenage years. He at first got involved with a gang of teenage shoplifters but qhickly stopped after they were arrested and thrown temporarily into a juvenile detention center. The incident did not put him off stealing. He was a clever young man and a quick learner and he began to develop more proficient and lucrative ways of obtaining money.
About this time Frank's father entrusted him with a car and a gas credit card. Frank soon devised a clever, yet unethical scheme for obtaining money with them. Over a period of several months, Frank Jr. went about town charging items from the gas station onto his credit card. He made deals with numerous gas station attendants, in which he would charge countless numbers of tires, car batteries and other accessories onto the card and then be given in return only a fraction of the amount of the sale back in cash. The attendants pocketed the remaining part of the money, usually around 50%. Everyone won except Frank's father who eventually got stuck with a gas bill of several thousand dollars.
Frank was returned to his mother's custody and promptly placed in a private school for delinquent boys. At the same time his father's stationery business folded, in part due to the enormous card bills which Frank had created.
In 1964, at the age of 16, Frank left home for good. He had a checkbook and $200 in his bank account. He obtained a job and began to exaggerate his age and education, knowing that it would likely result in an increase in his wages. However, he quickly realized that despite his lies, the jobs available would pay only enough to provide for the bare minimum in comfort. Frank had higher expectations. He was about to become a full time criminal.
Amazing But True Stories
- The Casino That Cheated, The Story of John Aspinall and The Clermont Club
The Clermont Club was a magnet for the super-rich who liked to gamble. Vast sums changed hands there each night but the games were rigged. The owner was cheating.
- Ed Gein, The Serial Killer Who Played With Corpses
Ed Gein was a necrophiliac, and a cannibal who loved to play with women's corpses. He murdered local women, skinned them and made masks, and flesh toned leggings. He wore the upper body skin of a woman and danced around his farm at midnight.
Early Bank Fraud
His first confidence trick was writing personal checks on his own overdrawn account. He then moved on to opening other accounts in different banks, eventually creating new identities to sustain the charade. Over time, he experimented and developed other methods of bank fraud, such as printing out his own almost-perfect copies of checks, depositing them and persuading banks to advance him cash on the basis of non-existent money in his accounts. Another of his famous tricks was to print his account number on blank deposit slips and add them to the stack of real blank slips in the bank. This meant that the deposits written on those slips by bank customers ended up going into his account rather than that of the legitimate customers. He collected over $40,000 by this method before he was discovered. By the time the bank began looking into his case, Abagnale had collected all the money and had already changed his identity.
Frank realised early on that in order to make his check scam super efficient he would have to move around the country and indeed the world to maximise the number of banks he could swindle. He needed a cheap and swift form of transport. He found it - he would become an instant pilot.
Pan Am Pilot
In America in the mid 1960s being an airline pilot, particularly with Pan Am held considerable social cachet. It didn't take Frank long to realise this and he worked out a way to adopt the appearance and persona of a pilot.
Luckily for him, he was six feet tall and his hair had begun to turn gray; he looked older than he really was. He changed his birth year on his driver's license -- from "1948" to "1938" -- and all of a sudden he was ten years older.
In order to increase his knowledge of the aviation industry, Frank decided that he needed to obtain information first hand. He arranged several interviews with executives and personnel at Pan Am's headquarters posing as a student doing a research project on the company and pilots. The idea worked well. He gained a wealth of relevant information, including knowledge of company policies and regulations about co-pilots, the types of planes used and the international hubs where the airline flew.
As far as credentials went, all he needed was a uniform and an identification card. For the former, he simply contacted the airline headquarters and made up a story about how he promptly needed a uniform and they outlined the course of action for him. For the ID, he located a company specializing in this trade, requested a sample with his name and picture, and used decals from a toy plane model to give authenticity to the card. Using the alias Frank Williams, he went around to area banks opening accounts in his pilot's uniform. During his rounds of New York's many financial institutions, he often drew a great deal of attention and respect from the bank employees, due to his admirable status as an airline co-pilot. Little did they know that he was a criminal, known to the police as 'The Skywayman'.
For 2 years he travelled all over the world,'deadheading' in the crew's jumpseat. It was free and he had access anywhere in the world to cash his rubber checks. Moreover, Pan Am picked up the tab for his accommodations while abroad, which served as an additional benefit throughout his criminal career. Everything, including food, airline tickets and lodgings, was billed entirely to Pan Am.
After 2 highly lucrative years as a 'Pilot', Frank became concerned that the police were getting too close to him. He met and befriended a doctor who lived near him in his new apartment in Georgia. Through him Frank managed to obtain a job as resident Hospital Supervisor and was given authorization to temporarily practice in the state of Georgia. His wit and humor worked well for him, successfully covering his ignorance, but at the same time earning him a reputation as a jovial, if eccentric, doctor who was much liked by the hospital staff.
Abagnale was nearly discovered after almost letting a baby die through oxygen deprivation (he had no idea what the nurse meant when she said there was a "blue baby"). He successfully faked his way through most of his duties by letting the interns handle most of the cases that came in during his late night shift, for example setting broken bones and other such tasks. After 11 months, he resigned from the potentially dangerous game and, after returning to the air and cheque fraud for a few months, decided to make another career move - he would become a lawyer.
While posing as Pan Am First Officer "Robert Black", Frank met a stewardess whom he had met on his first foray into Pan Am. He told her that he was a Harvard law 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, surprisingly, on his third try Frank passed and received a license to practice law. Following an interview, he was hired as a legal assistant working in the corporate law division of the attorney general. He was also given an annual salary of approximately $13,000. He was 19 years old.
After an enjoyable period earning a more or less legitimate living, Frank was forced to quit his legal job as one of his lawyer colleagues was asking too many questions about him. He once more returned to Pan Am and restarted his worldwide check cashing activities. During his travels he visited the State of Utah and was especially drawn to the university campuses in the area. He decided he would become a university Lecturer in the State.
Frank set up an appointment with the Dean of Brigham Young University and with falsified credentials in hand,informed him that he had worked as a university instructor for a couple of years before he left the field and became an airline pilot. He suggested that he was interested in returning to his roots as a teacher and would be like to work at the university. The dean was highly impressed and hired Frank to teach two six-week courses during the summer at a salary of $1,600 per semester. Once again, Frank had achieved the seemingly impossible. He immediately began to research the position and study the books he would use so that he would be prepared for his new job. To teach his class, he read a chapter ahead of his students.
His masquerade as a professor was a success. Frank's classes were not only interesting and the talk of the campus but he was also highly revered by his students. Moreover, Frank thoroughly enjoyed his new, though temporary position. Unfortunately for Frank his stint as a professor was short-lived and at the end of the summer he was let go with an invitation from the dean to return when a permanent position became available.
He immediately returned to what he knew best - 'paperhanging' - passing dud cheques at banks all over the world. He became even more sophisticated in his role as a con artist and forge, making tens of thousands of dollars more than he had previously. Most of the money he made was from cashing counterfeit expense checks that he manufactured himself. In fact, Frank was so proficient at his criminal trade that he managed to accumulate almost $100,000. He soon became a wanted man in many countries and it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with him. He was still in his teens.
Capture and Retribution
For 5 years Frank had seemed almost invincible. Almost everything he attempted, no matter how foolhardy it seemed, he succeeded in, including eluding the police and FBI. With every new plan, he perfected his techniques in con artistry, forgery and impersonation. He decided, at the ripe old age of nineteen, to slow down with the check fraud game for fear that the authorities would catch up with him.
He moved to Montpellier, France, at the age of twenty, not far from where his mother was born. He quickly settled into his new life style, after having changed his name to Robert Monjo. To further protect his identity, he posed as a successful Hollywood screenwriter and author.
For the first time in years Frank was making an attempt to live a normal life. He knew that the risk of being caught significantly increased if he continued to stay in one place for a prolonged period of time, but it was a chance he was willing to take. He had simply spent too long on the run and he was tired.
It was only 4 months before Frank's worst fears were realised. He was eventually caught in France in 1969 when an Air France attendant recognized his face from a wanted poster. After a brief interrogation, Frank admitted to being Frank Abagnale Jr. but refused to reveal any specific information concerning his crimes. He was tried in a French court, found guilty on several charges, including fraud and was sentenced to one year in the notorious prison Perpignan. When the French police apprehended him, all 26 of the countries in which he had committed fraud wanted to extradite him. He first served prison time in Perpignan's fearsome House of Arrest in France; a one year sentence that was reduced to six months.
He was extradited to Sweden and eventually to the United States where briefly, he once again found himself on the run after having escaped the police and FBI on several occasions. He was apprehended a final time while hiding out in New York and was eventually released into the custody of the FBI and tried for his crimes. He was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for multiple counts of forgery.
Following his sentencing, he was remanded to the Federal Correction Institution in Petersburg, Virginia. However, he was granted early parole at the age of twenty-six years, having spent a total of five years behind bars. Frank was finally free and had the chance to make a new beginning, although it would prove to be difficult.
More "Strange But True" Stories
- The Amazing Mitford Sisters, Beauty, Brains and Maximum Dysfunction
The lives of the beautiful and gifted Mitford sisters read like fiction. Their lives entwined and infiltrated every aspect of society. In a Forest Gump sort of way, they were always on the edge of history and sometimes actively involved.
- Royal Scandal - The Lady, the Lord and the Cabaret Singer
In 1932, a scandal occurred close to the British Royal Family. It involved a very public relationship between a colored cabaret singer from Grenada called Leslie Hutchinson and a close relative of Prince Philip, husband of the Queen of England.
Robin Hood Rehabilitated
Following his release, Frank worked at a series of low paying jobs, trying to conceal from his employers that he was an ex-con. After a while, Frank began to get frustrated because he knew he had talents that could be of use to somebody somewhere. He just had to find a client that would be interested in his skills and maybe in some way profit from them. He also knew he had to find a way to market himself.
Surprisingly, it was the very people who captured Frank who would offer him a second chance. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies were just the people who could gain from what he knew. They needed to know the workings of a criminal mind from first hand experience so that they could use the knowledge to better apprehend offenders. Frank began to lecture to them for free, realizing that he had to in some way repay his debt to society.
Before long, more jobs came Frank's way but ones which paid. In fact, as the years went buy, Frank's knowledge was in great demand by major companies around the world. Companies realized that they could save millions if not billions of dollars protecting themselves from con artists and counterfeiters and Frank was just the man that could provide them with the valuable information they needed.
At present Frank is one of the world's foremost authorities on document fraud, including check swindling, forgery and embezzlement and runs his own security company, Abagnale and Co. Frank has been a consultant, lectured and instructed hundreds of seminars worldwide and continues to offer his services for free to the FBI. Moreover, he has published several books, manuals and articles and has designed secure checks that are utilized by businesses worldwide. He is, in short, an outstandingly successful businessman. His life story was filmed as Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo di Caprio. He has been happily married for many years and has 3 sons. He has become a model citizen.
Summary of A Criminal Genius
It is no coincidence that as soon as he directed his energies to positive, legal business practices, Frank soon became just as successful legally as he had previously been illegally.
Not only did Frank have many talents but he was a genius in the truest sense of the word, however misdirected he may have been. Among some of Frank's best known and least appreciated talents was his remarkable ability to create and utilize false identities as well as bogus checks. He was a con artist extraordinaire and probably one of the century's most cunning swindlers. His talent for deceiving the authorities and cheating banks, airlines and hotels out of millions of dollars was unprecedented. Even more extraordinary was that he was between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one-years old when he committed his crimes.
Three of Frank Abagnale's Best Sellers
Frank On Film
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Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on August 16, 2017:
I learned a lot from this hub, which was more interesting than the Hollywood version that took so many liberties with the facts. I hated to read what he did to his father and hope he regretted it.
It was nice to find something interesting to read here on HP. It's been a while . . .
Jason Matthews from North Carolina on November 25, 2013:
I saw the movie "Catch Me If You Can." Frank's story really is an amazing one. You did an incredible job of summing up so many details into a concise and well written account. I really enjoyed reading this hub.
scottrights from San Diego on January 31, 2012:
Even though I know the story, I enjoyed reading it all over again. It's amazing.
thecounterpunch on February 22, 2011:
Would be an admirer if he hadn't defrauded his own father shame on him !
rameshbashyam from Chennai on December 07, 2010:
Well written hub. Enjoyed reading it. Yeah the law should use the criminals to track and reduce crime.
DavidLivingston on December 07, 2010:
A very nice hub. Thank you for sharing.
akycrawler on January 01, 2010:
That story is amazing and fun. Nice Hub!!
christina mesa on September 13, 2009:
I watched the movie and I loved it. Its hard to believe that its a real story. congradulation great movie !!
tb on June 22, 2009:
absolut legend, he is a legend, i look at my life and his done 50 times more than ive done
P.DURHAM on June 20, 2009:
THAT WAS A GOOD MOVIE...AND HOW HE TRICKED THE DETECTIVE INTO THINKING HE WAS FROM TE SECRET SERVICE
JennifersJumpers on March 16, 2009:
Great Hub. Great writing style.
kimback08 from Barbourville, KY on February 04, 2009:
Catch Me If You Can is a fantastic film. Interesting man with a phenomenal story. Nice job. Great hub.
Jacob Smalls from Tennessee on December 26, 2008:
I watched the movie a few months ago. It really is amazing what he pulled off. But it was in the time before computers so its more understandable. He was a genius albeit in a bad fashion. Good article.