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He conned his way around the world, posing as a pilot while still in his teens, and cashing $2.5 million in dud cheques; but it wasn’t for the money, the real Frank Abagnale from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, tells Keith Lofthouse.

A Houston police chief once said that “Frank W. Abagnale could write a cheque on toilet paper, sign it ‘U.R.Hooked” and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong driver’s licence as I.D.”

Abagnale, who might have well been a role model for the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, earned the title as one of “greatest con-artists of all time” before he turned 21. He isn’t proud of his chequered past, but nor does he bridle from it. It has, after all, made him a rich man who profited not only from his five years posing as a Pan-Am pilot, pediatrician, lawyer and college professor, but also his five years in prison and his 25 years of penance. 

While still in his teens, Abagnale funded a luxurious lifestyle by cashing $2.5 million in fraudulent cheques throughout the United States and in 26 foreign countries (including Australia) and indulged a weakness for women which was apparently inexhaustible. “Don Juan had only a mild case of the hots compared to me,” he boasted in his best-selling book, Catch Me If You Can, which was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s film starring Leonardo DiCaprio (as Abagnale) and Tom Hanks as the relentless FBI guy on his tail.

By his own admission, Abagnale, or Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams and umpteen other aliases was “slipperier than a buttered escargot” until French gendarmes, the Swedish police and the FBI finally caught up with him and put him away.

"I still have to deal with these issues now"

He has regrets, of course. “What I did was immoral, illegal, unethical and wrong. My kids know their dad was a crook, and the downside of it is that I still have to deal with these issues now.”

There is no pride in his past but he is proud of the movie (in which he cameos as a French policeman) and he claims a symbiotic relationship with its director and stars. “Steven Spielberg’s parents separated when he was 16; he masqueraded in a suit and bluffed his way into the studios…Tom Hanks’ parents divorced when he was a kid…. Leo’s parents also divorced.

“The movie shows just how devastating divorce can be for some children…it’s a movie that shows you can only get away with being a criminal for so long; that you will be caught and will have to pay the consequences. Most important for me is that it’s a movie about redemption, that you can make mistakes in your life, and you can get up, brush yourself off and still do something positive with your life. I think that says a lot for people who are alcoholics, drug addicts, people who say they can’t go on.” 

He claims he was never motivated by money, but by the challenge of each elaborate scam and when he showed the FBI how he could be more useful working for them than against them it was no con. After serving five years of a 12 year sentence he was released into their custody on the condition that he was unpaid for his fake-finding expertise.

When Frankie The Fraud went straight, he applied what he had learned in the bilking fields and became one of the world's foremost authorities on forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. He now lectures to and consults with hundreds of financial institutions, corporations and government agencies around the world. 

Abagnale was 16 in 1964 when, rocked by his parents’ divorce, he ran away from home in New York. He had already stolen a car, spent time in reform school and ripped his father off for $3400.

"accelerated his lifestyle"

He was big for his age and younger than he looked, but he aged ten years overnight when he altered the birth-date on his driver’s licence and accelerated his lifestyle by writing worthless cheques to wine and dine dates, or chill-out in plush hotel rooms while scamming all his worldly expenses. 

And then one day, he was dazzled by the aura of an airline flight crew, as the glamorous group sashayed through the revolving doors of one of New York’s finest hotels, shining in their gold-piped uniforms. These were people that women admired and others looked up to. These were people who could be trusted never to pass a dud cheque. The boy couldn’t fly a kite, but if he couldn’t be a pilot, he was at least determined to look like one.

Within days Abagnale bluffed a First Officer’s uniform from Pan-Am’s suppliers in New York by pretending that his own had been stolen, forged a pilot’s licence and an ID card, which he “authenticated” by stripping thin plastic logos and lettering from $2.49 models of Pan-Am jets and affixing them to the fake documents.

The only thing that wasn’t false about Frank was his teeth, but having conned his way to the cockpit he was soon flying freebies all over the United States and overseas perched on a jump seat which serves to “deadhead” other pilots to whatever destination they require to pick up their own flights.

“I never flew on Pan-Am flights because I was always afraid someone would ask me to do something technical,” Abagnale admits. “But once on a BOAC flight, the pilot got up for coffee and told me to take his seat at the controls. I had 140 lives at my fingertips, but the plane was on auto-pilot, the co-pilot was there and the flight engineer was behind him. I never touched anything, but if the co-pilot happened to say that he was going to the rest room, I was ready to confess everything… to tell them about this young kid who flim-flammed a uniform.”

Hopping from plane to plane and bed to bed on cheque to cheque enabled Abagnale to play “catch me if you can” with his most vigorous pursuers. 

"times of abject loneliness"

There were times of abject loneliness. “I could convince the whole world that I was an adult, but when I was alone at night you were just a kid again. I missed my home and friends, I missed school and football. I missed my childhood. There were hundreds of women, but everybody I knew was 10 or 15 years older than me and I couldn’t confide in anyone.”

When the heat was on from the FBI, Abagnale “rested” as a doctor, a lawyer and a college professor. He learnt medical terms from a pocket dictionary and forged a variety of documents, including a law degree from Harvard and another in sociology from Columbia University.

“You’ve got to remember,” he tells sceptics, “that the sixties was an era of innocence in which if you said you were somebody people believed you and those days will never be seen again.”

Abagnale was the least surprised person on the planet when those giant jets gouged into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. If he was a terrorist himself he could have wiped out hundreds of lives, but even today he is convinced he could con his way to the flight deck beating “superficial” airport security.

“I think they (the terrorists) could have done what they did much more easily,” he says with chilling conviction. “Most of the documents I faked up were crude cut and paste jobs, but with color-copiers, scanners, digitisers and ink jet printers it’s about 800 times easier today.” 

Married with three sons, Abagnale now 54, has had ties with the FBI for over 25 years. More than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies use his fraud prevention programs and he has been visiting Australia for the past decade, consulting for Leigh-Mardon, the firm that prints Australian passports, drivers’ licenses and credits cards.

"some lies are bigger than others"

“Do you still tell lies, Frank?” I asked.
“Everyone tells lies,” he said, after a pause, “but some lies are bigger than others and some come back to haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Published January 23

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Frank Abagnale with Steven Spielberg onset

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