Fortune Magazine

March 27, 2006

Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Ask any audience member of the hugely popular Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can , and they will probably admit that they were rooting for the young con artist. Although he was a criminal, Frank Abagnale was also a teenager who was simply too smart for his own good.
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Born in 1948, Frank W. Abagnale was always a creative child. For example, he would buy items on his father's credit card only to sell them back for the cash. But his real life of crime began when his parents divorced. A judge wanted him to choose between living with his mother or father and that was a decision he wasn't able to make. He ran away and never looked back.

Because he was only 16 years old, work was hard to come by in New York, the city he had escaped to. 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 a number on his driver's license -- from a "4" to a "3" -- and all of a sudden he was ten years older.

Having acquired a small amount of money, he went into a bank to open an account. That's when he was first introduced to banking operation procedures. Being a new client, he had to use generic deposit slips available on the counter, and that's when he got the idea: What if he printed his account number in magnetic ink on a bunch of deposit slips and returned them to the counter? Tempted to see what would happen with a scheme like that, he did it on impulse. The result was that every time someone made a deposit using these slips, the money was being dumped into Abagnale's own account. By the time the bank discovered the system, Abagnale had made over $40,000 and already changed his identity.

Abagnale's most famous stunt was impersonating a Pan Am pilot for two years. At first, he did it so he could travel around the world for free. Only, the young man had no idea how to fly. He would simply introduce himself at the TWA counter saying he needed a ride and got to fly back using the jumpseat. Everything, food and lodging, was billed to Pan Am.

con man extraordinaire

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. He became known as "The Skywayman."

In the same spirit, he forged a Harvard Law diploma, managed to pass the Bar exam, and got himself a job in a state attorney general's office. Impersonating a pediatrician, he became the temporary resident supervisor at a Georgia hospital. He also taught sociology at Brigham Young for a semester (thanks to a false Columbia University degree), and masqueraded as a stockbroker and an FBI agent. The best part of all was that he didn't even have a high-school diploma!

Assuming the identities of Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams, and Robert Monjo, Abagnale managed to forge and cash paychecks for an amount of $2.5 million. This money was used to support his lifestyle, which in turn was designed to make him seem more favorable with the ladies. An opportunist, he claims that he didn't have any malicious intentions while perpetrating his crimes.

So was Abagnale caught?

most wanted crimninal

Before long, he had defrauded people in all 50 states and 26 foreign countries. Warrants were issued for his arrest all over the world. After five years of these hijinks, the law finally caught up with Frank Abagnale. At the age of 21, an Air France flight attendant recognized him from a wanted poster and the French authorities arrested him.

He served a total of five years in prison in France, Sweden and finally the United States, where he was sentenced to 12 years. In 1974, the federal government approached him and offered him a deal; they released him on the condition that he would help the authorities, without remuneration, to understand the inner workings of fraud and confidence games.

From that moment, he established a company, Abagnale & Associates, which advises financial institutions and law enforcement agencies on how to prevent the same crimes he so brilliantly committed. He is now an international expert on forgery, embezzlement and other forms of white-collar crime. From this new source of income, he willingly paid back everyone he ripped off.

Abagnale admits that life on the run was lonely, and not as glamorous as it is sometimes portrayed in Hollywood. Now a family man, he confesses that he still gets ideas about interesting scams but doesn't act on them. He is certain the crime of the future will be identity theft and that today's technology makes it a lot easier. His new mission in life is to convince the world of it.

why is it searched?
With the eyes of the world turning to him thanks to the release of the film adapation of Abagnale's biopic, amateur sleuths will likely find themselves questioning the veracity of the events depicted in the film. Even the most extraordinary lives have dull moments and filmmakers find themselves obligated to alter facts in an effort to dramatize key moments. You can therefore count on the name being searched massively as the movie gains popularity.

length of public interest?
For younger generations, the name Frank Abagnale is closely associated with the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the new Steven Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can in which Tom Hanks also stars. However, the book by the same name -- on which it's based -- penned by Abagnale and Stan Redding, was released in 1980 and was a huge bestseller within weeks. It was recently re-released in light of the upcoming film.

Since then, the man has been a frequent guest on The Tonight Show and co-hosted a TV show in 1989 called Crimewatch Tonight . A regular speaker on the conference circle, he has been chosen as one of the top five lecturers in America by the International Platform Association and was voted the #1 Campus Speaker in America by the National Entertainment College Conference Association. Also, he wrote a second book relating to fraud prevention, The Art of the Steal , which was published in the fall of 2001.

The man known as the "world's greatest con artist," Abagnale's popularity will surely continue to "steal" the spotlight for years to come.

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