The name Frank Abagnale Jr. might be hard to place, but his crimes definitely aren’t. He’s the man most famously depicted in the 2002 hit film Catch Me If You Can, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, for impersonating a Pan American World Airways pilot. This was just one of his many crimes, which included theft, fraud, and forgery. Yet some sources say that Abagnale actually lied about his lies. According to information revealed in The New York Post, his story might not be nearly as fantastical as it seems.
A criminal past
Abagnale was raised in New York. His parents divorced when he was young and he went to live with his father. Abagnale began his life of crime early, first with shoplifting, and then by purchasing things on his father’s credit card and returning them for cash. The flaw with this plan is painfully obvious, and soon enough his dad received some hefty bills in the mail. Unsure what else to do, he sent his son to a school for young delinquents.
Although he joined the US Navy briefly, Abagnale was discharged a few months later and went right back to his schemes. He was arrested in March 1965 for impersonating a police officer and using a toy gun and paper badge to enter the apartment of a teen girl. In the following years, he was caught for numerous other crimes, including car theft, falsifying employee credentials, and stealing blank checks.
These crimes caught up with him by 1969 and he was convicted, getting sentenced to 12 years of supervised probation. Unwilling to serve this time, he escaped to Europe. This didn’t accomplish what he hoped, as he was arrested there for new crimes, and was eventually sent to prison for two months before being returned back to the US in June 1970. This was when he undertook his famous pilot scam.
He was able to obtain a pilot’s uniform by calling Pan-Am to tell them he lost his uniform while staying in a hotel. They sent a ‘replacement.’ While dressed this way, he got free flights worldwide while “deadheading,” an arrangement that also came with free hotels and food. Abagnale also pretended to recruit flight attendants for the company and started cashing fake paychecks. This is what caught the attention of the FBI, and he was eventually arrested.
Catch Me If You Can
His crimes didn’t stop there, but were eventually phased out after Abagnale served some time and began writing and speaking about his life, including Catch Me If You Can, co-written with Stan Redding. The book was considered semi-biographical, with many fictionalized parts adding to the craziness that was Abagnale’s time as a young man.
Steven Spielberg used this book as the basis for his film of the same name. Much of Abagnale’s fame came from this Hollywood portrayal of his life. He capitalized on the attention by giving public lectures and eventually working as an advisor for the FBI. It was while speaking at a high school that one of the audience members, Jim Keith, a security manager at JCPenney, became suspicious of just how much of what the reformed con artist said was true.
Lying about lying
What first made Keith question things was when Abagnale was saying blatantly incorrect things about check fraud. Keith set about proving that Abagnale was still defrauding the public, working alongside a professor of criminal justice, William Toney. He had also watched Abagnale speak in the past and didn’t believe much of what he was saying. Fortunately for the duo, Toney was able to use his students to help with their research, putting together a formidable team to debunk the fraudster.
Toney and Keith were able to come to some pretty clear conclusions about Abagnale and his time as a criminal. In 2020, Jim Keith sent an 87-page file about Abagnale to a reporter. The package included official documents, newspaper clippings, and lots of correspondence with William Toney, who’d passed away in 2010.
Their extensive research indicated that Abagnale had indeed committed some of the crimes. He did masquerade as a pilot and was able to travel while doing so. He also forged many checks, escaped from jail, and was sent to a European prison. Yet Keith and Toney were able to prove that many other claims he made about his life were completely false, mainly because he spent most of his time between the ages of 16 and 21 in jail.
What’s the truth?
Keith said his other stories were “inaccurate, misleading, exaggerated or totally false.” For example, Abagnale claimed in his stories that he’d pretended to be a professor, a physician, a lawyer, and a consultant to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. These stories were easy enough to fact-check, and it was revealed that he hadn’t done any of them. It won’t come as a surprise that he also didn’t dress as a security guard to rob a drop box at Boston’s Logan Airport.
Keith and Toney weren’t the only people to debunk Abagnale. Alan C. Logan, author of The Greatest Hoax on Earth, called him out for allegedly cashing 17,000 checks during his criminal years. Logan said, “The time he wasn’t in some prison or jail amounts to about 14 months. Cashing 17,000 checks in that period is 40 checks per day.”
Sadly, for those who enjoyed watching Frank Abagnale’s unbelievable antics on the big screen, much of it was heavily embellished.