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"Catch Me If You Can": The True Story of Frank Abagnale

Readmikenow has written about various medical conditions. He has previously written a series of articles on Polyarteritis nodosa.

Movie poster for "Catch Me If You Can."

Movie poster for "Catch Me If You Can."

Catch Me If You Can

Before he had reached his twenty-first birthday, Frank Abagnale was an international con artist. He was wanted by over a dozen countries for check forgery, confidence trickery as well as being an imposter, and more. Starting at the age of 15, Abagnale successfully assumed at least eight different identities. This included everything from a lawyer to a physician as well as an airline pilot, U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent, and more. Two times he escaped from being in police custody. Abagnale ultimately spent over four years in prison but was then offered a job by the federal government to help them stop con artists such as himself.

Early Life

On April 27, 1948, Frank William Abagnale was born in New York. He had three other siblings and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. His mother was French, and her name was Paulette. His father was Frank Abagnale, Sr. When Abagnale was twelve, his parents separated. They divorced when Abagnale turned fourteen. His father was involved with theater and politics. When he was growing up, Frank Abagnale Jr. attended Catholic School.

First Con at 15 (1963)

The first victim of one of Abagnale's many cons was his father. A gas card had been given to him, as well as a truck, by his father. This was done so Abagnale could commute to and from his part-time job. He took the gas card and worked out a scheme with the people at different gas stations. Abagnale would claim on the card to purchase tires or batteries as well as other items from the gas station. Instead of getting the items, the attendants would give him cash instead. This worked too well and eventually Abagnale's father was liable for over a $3,000 debt. This was done by Abagnale when he was 15-years-old.

Frank Abagnale Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Abagnale) at the premiere of "Catch Me If You Can" in 2002.

Frank Abagnale Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Abagnale) at the premiere of "Catch Me If You Can" in 2002.

Bank Fraud

This started when Abagnale figured out how to write personal checks on his own account that was overdrawn. This didn't work for long. The banks would catch up with him and demand that he pay them. This caused Abagnale to open numerous accounts in many different banks. It also required him to invent new identities for the fraud to be successful. Abagnale wasn't satisfied with this one fraud. He would experiment with different ways to defraud a bank. Abagnale was able to print out copies of payroll checks that looked real. When he was depositing these fraudulent checks, he'd ask for the bank to give him a cash advance based on what his account balance would be after the deposit. He would also place his account number on the bottom of a bank’s blank deposit slips. Abagnale would then add these to the real blank deposit slips the bank provided for customers to use. When people or companies used his deposit slips, their deposits would automatically go into Abagnale's account.

Security Guard

Abagnale noticed how companies would have their daily money collections in zip bags and deposit them into a drop box at the airport. These were airlines, car rental companies, and other businesses. Abagnale went to a local costume shop and bought a security guard costume. He placed a sign over a drop box at the airport. The sign told people the box was out of service. They needed to give their deposits to the security guard on duty. In one day, Abagnale collected thousands of dollars with his sign and wearing a security guard costume. When Abagnale talks about this, he shares how shocked he was that the con was actually successful. He still wonders why people would believe a dropbox could be out of service.

Frank Abagnale as a pilot.

Frank Abagnale as a pilot.

Airline Pilot

The real motivation behind impersonating an airline pilot was so he could fly around the world and not have to pay. He called Pan American World Airways and told them he was a pilot who had lost his uniform. They provided him with a new one. After getting the pilot’s uniform, Abagnale forged a Federal Aviation Administration pilot's license. It is estimated that he flew to over 25 countries on over 249 flights. He took advantage of a pilot being able to fly for free on any plane in Pan American World Airways. He was also able to send bills for hotels and food to the airlines during this time and the airline paid them.


Abagnale forged Harvard University law transcripts. He used these forged documents to take the Louisiana state bar exam. Abagnale passed the Louisiana bar exam on his third try. He then got a job working for the Louisiana State Attorney General's office as a properly licensed attorney. Abagnale accomplished this at the age of nineteen. He resigned from this job around eight months after starting. A man in the office where he was worked started looking into Abagnale's background at Harvard.

Frank Abagnale as a physician.

Frank Abagnale as a physician.


Abagnale worked as the chief resident pediatrician in a hospital in Georgia. He used the alias Frank Williams and did the job for 11 months. It started when he filled out a form to rent an apartment; Abagnale put physician down as his occupation. In the complex where he lived many physicians resided there. Abagnale befriend one of them. When asked by his physician friend, Abagnale agreed to be the supervisor for resident interns at a local hospital where his friend worked. Abagnale agreed to do this until a new physician could be hired. The job required him to do no actual medical work. This was done by the interns at the hospital.

Capture and Incarceration

In 1969, Abagnale was arrested in Montpellier, France. At this time, he was wanted by a dozen countries on charges of fraud. He spent six months at Perpignan prison where he was in a cell that had no toilet facilities, blanket, and little or no light. Food and water were at a minimum. He was then sent to Sweden where he was found guilty of forgery and served six months in much better conditions. Abagnale then was sent to the United States.

Plane Escape

When Abagnale was on his way to the United States, he escaped from a plane in New York City. He did this at night and he made his way to the Bronx. Abagnale then got keys to a bank in Canada where he had a safe deposit box with thousands of dollars. He was apprehended in Canada waiting for plane tickets to Brazil. He was then turned over to United States law enforcement.

Frank Abagnale with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

Frank Abagnale with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

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Federal Detention Center Escape

While waiting for trial at a Federal Detention Center in Georgia, Abagnale was mistaken for an undercover prison inspector. A friend of his outside the prison acted as his fiancee and a journalist. She identified Abagnale as an undercover prison inspector and gave the prison administration a business card identifying him as Inspector Dunlap. This resulted in Abagnale getting the best possible inmate privileges as well as better food and more. Abagnale's confirmed with the prison administration that he was a prison inspector. He told them it was important he speak with the FBI. Abagnale talked an FBI agent into coming to get him at the prison. Once out of the prison, Abagnale's friend picked him up and took him to the local Greyhound station before the FBI agent arrived. He made his way to Washington D.C. but was eventually captured trying once again to get a flight to Brazil.

Government Job

Abagnale was sentenced to serve twelve years at a Federal Correctional Institution in Virginia. In 1974, he had served over four years and was offered a chance to be released. The United States federal government offered to let him go free if he helped them investigate fraud crimes done by international scam artists. Abagnale only had to sign in once a week. He accepted the government's offer.

Media Sensation

After his release, Abagnale was on various television shows, including the quiz show To Tell the Truth. He was also on The Tonight Show three times. Abagnale was a regular guest on the British television series, The Secret Cabaret.

July 2009 premiere of the "Catch Me If You Can" during its brief Seattle "tryout run." The musical opened on Broadway in April 2011.

July 2009 premiere of the "Catch Me If You Can" during its brief Seattle "tryout run." The musical opened on Broadway in April 2011.

Book, Movie, And Musical

Abagnale wrote a book in 1980 called Catch Me If You Can. Development for a movie started in 1980, but the project wasn’t active until 1997. This was when the film rights for the book were sold to DreamWorks.

The resulting movie was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. The movie was a financial success and also well-received by movie critics. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Christopher Walken for Best Supporting Actor and John Williams for Best Original Musical Score.

Catch Me If You Can was also the basis for a musical of the same name that began running on Broadway in 2011.


Frank Abagnale has a business called Abagnale & Associates. The company's mission is to educate companies on how to avoid being a victim of fraud schemes. He lives with his wife Kelly in Charleston, South Carolina, and they met while he was on an undercover assignment for the FBI. The couple has three sons.


Readmikenow (author) on May 03, 2018:

Larry Thanks. I agree, I was also amazed at how young he was when he did all of this.

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on May 02, 2018:

I saw that movie and it was amazing how Frank was such a good con artist and didn't get caught for a long time.

Readmikenow (author) on January 18, 2018:

Kenna, thanks. You are right.

Readmikenow (author) on January 18, 2018:

Larry, thanks. I am so amazed it's true. I can't imagine thinking of such things. Amazing.

Kenna McHugh from Northern California on January 17, 2018:

An amazing story, what he did is now called social engineering and most of it is done on the Internet

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 17, 2018:

This is a movie I particularly enjoyed.

Always enjoy your insights.

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