Have you seen the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can and doubted the information that this movie could have been based on a true story? It is true that the story of the hero is quite impossible, however, almost everything in the movie was rather close to the life history of Frank W. Abagnale, a con artist and a forger.
Frank Jr. had a blissful childhood until his mother decided to separate from his father. After the breakup, Frank Jr. chose to live alone with his father in Bronxville, New York. At that time, Frank Jr. got involved with a gang of juvenile delinquents who often committed petty crimes such as shoplifting. However, Frank Jr. found those crimes too primitive for his own intellect and split with the gang. He decided to find money in a more sophisticated manner. In 1952 he received a Ford and a gas credit card from his father, intended to help him in his new part-time clerical job. As that job was giving him an insufficient amount of money for picking up girls, Frank started to go around town buying items from the gas station on his credit card. He made a deal with the gas station attendants that he would be charged for numerous tires, car batteries and petrol, whereas the actual purchases didn't take place. In return the attendant would give him the money, and they could take around 50 per cent for themselves. This way Frank Jr. obtained easy money and the gas station still had the goods and half the money from the transactions. But after several months Frank's father had to foot the bill which amounted to a few thousands dollars.
After this incident, Frank was returned to his mother's care. He lived in his mother's home until he was sixteen. Then he moved alone to New York City with a chequebook and $200 USD in his bank account. He easily found a job at a stationery firm, but soon noticed that the earnings were too little for his needs. As he couldn't obtain any better position at his age and with the lack of any university diploma, he altered the birth date on his driver's license and started to lie about his education. But even after these petty modifications his salary was still too low. So instead of earning a living in a decent way, Frank decided to quite his job and write dud cheques. This way he overdrew his account by thousands of dollars. In order to get away with this forgery, he decided to move away and change his name.
Having known that airline pilots were credible and respected professionals, he decided to get a uniform and then present his forged cheques to bank assistants, who would not pay much attention to checking their authenticity, even if they amounted to a considerable sum of money. He managed to get a uniform in a company specialising in Pan Am uniforms on 5th Avenue, after lying to the purchasing agent at Pan American Airlines' corporate headquarters that he was a pilot whose uniform had been lost by a hotel. Obviously, he had to fill out a form with fictitious personal details. He also managed to get an ID-badge by pretending at the company to be a Pan Am purchasing officer. As that badge was for demonstration purposes only, it didn't have a Pan Am logo on it. Frank solved this problem by buying a model Pan Am plane, which had a sticker with the logo. He simply removed this symbol and placed it on the ID card.
Frank started to gain information about aviation and the Pan Am Company. He read a lot in the local library, and made a number of interviews with pilots pretending to be a journalism student. During one of these interviews he learned about deadheading, an airline employee privilege allowing an employee to fly to any destination with another airline to fulfill a specific mission. Frank managed to forge an FAA licence, which was compulsory for pilots.
Under the false alias of Frank Williams, Frank was flying around the USA to different banks and opening accounts, dressed in his pilot's uniform. Pretending to be deadheading, he was always ignored by the rest of the crew. As a pilot, he always drew a great deal of respect from the bank clerks. Moreover, the pilot uniform in combination with his young age and good looks resulted in a huge interest by stewardesses. Frank was very glad of the numerous dates with them. And not only because he could get lots of information about the flying industry. Frank spent several years living this way. Every day he became a better and better expert in cheques and swindling. However, his good life was disturbed by the idea that it was only a matter of time before he would be caught.
Once he was almost identified in Miami and was questioned by the police. However, during the interrogation Frank gave the names of a few Pan Am pilots whom he made acquaintances with. All of them confirmed his identification and finally Frank was released. After this experience, Frank decided to suspend his activities and go to Atlanta in Georgia.
Once in Atlanta, Frank pretended to be a pediatrician and ended up with a position at the hospital supervising medical interns during the night shift. He read a lot about medicine and often used humour to cover his complete ignorance. He made use of all his intellect and charm to leave the entire medical work to the other resident doctors. In his position, Frank actually had no direct contact with patients. One day, however, he was called to one patient to assist. As usual, he used his wit to leave his work to his subordinate. But with the awareness that his game endangered the children's lives, he promptly left the hospital.
During his next stop in Louisiana, Frank met a stewardess whom he had known in the past. He lied to his new girlfriend that he was not only a pilot, but also a lawyer, graduated from Harvard. During one party she introduced him to a lawyer working in a local office. The lawyer told Frank that there was a possibility to employ Frank at his office as an assistant. All that Frank had to do was to take his university transcripts to the office and pass an exam. No wonder, Frank easily fabricated this document. Although he had read a lot of law books, he failed the exam. But there was a possibility of taking the exam as many times as he wanted. So eventually he passed it and received a license to practice law. He obtained a position with an annual salary of approximately $13,000. The work seemed ideal for Frank, as it included mainly fetching documents and coffee for his superiors. The only problem was one co-worker who had graduated from Harvard and started to ask too many questions. Frank was afraid of being discovered and finally left the job.
Frank returned to his old career as an airline co-pilot. This time he managed to get a uniform from Trans World Airways (TWA). Once again, he could travel around the world and cash bad cheques. But this activity soon become too boring for Frank. So, using falsified credentials, he became a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University in Utah. Surprisingly, Frank was highly successful as a professor. His classes were interesting and Frank was highly regarded by his students. Unfortunately, his position was only temporary and at the end of the summer he was let go. The dean told him that he would be happy if Frank returned to the university, but only if a permanent position became available.
Frank returned to California where he returned to his favourite pastime of writing bad cheques. Being still quite young, he was unbelievably wealthy for his age. One day he fell in love with a young stewardess. They even started to think about marriage. Frank once decided to reveal his true background to his fiancée. He was surprised when she informed the police and the FBI. He made a narrow escape from the police raid.
He made some deceptions with fake Pan Am cheques made out to him at one company. Then at the age of twenty he moved to France. He changed his name to Robert Monjo and bought a cottage. He introduced himself as a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Being too long in one place however, Frank risked being caught. Four months after Frank moved to France, he was captured by the FBI agent Joseph Shea. Up until then, he has written out more than $2.5 million dollars in bad cheques.
He was sentenced by a French court to one year in prison for several crimes. He was then extradited to Sweden and the USA, where he escaped from the plane during landing. Finally he was caught and tried by an American court. He was found guilty and received a twelve year sentence. He was released from prison after five years, at the age of twenty-six.