Born and raised in the Westchester County city of Bronxville, New York, Abagnale attended Iona Preparatory School, an all boys Catholic high school which is run by the Irish Christian Brothers. He was the third of four children (two brothers and one sister) born to a French mother, Paula Abagnale, and an American father, Frank William Abagnale, Sr.
One of the early signs of his future as a fraudster came when, after purchasing a car, he persuaded his father to lend him his Mobil card. With this card, he would purchase large quantities of car parts, such as tires, batteries, engines and fuel. The purchases were on paper only, the goods were never taken from the shelves. In an agreement with the gas station attendant, he would then immediately return the items for cash for less than the price at which they were purchased, the remainder being pocketed by the attendant. Not realizing that the card was in his father's name, he tricked his dad out of $3400, doing this to pay for dates, before the local Mobil branch sought his father out for questioning and expecting payment. Upon being confronted, Abagnale confessed to his father that "it's the girls that make me crazy", but escaped punishment for the incident. Later, his mother placed him for four months in a special Catholic Charities school for juvenile offenders.
In 1964, when he was 16, his parents divorced. The experience was so traumatic that he ran away during a court break. It was the last time he saw his father, though he renewed contact with his mother after seven years.
Living alone in New York City after running away, he became known as the "Big Nale", later shortened to just "Big". He decided to exploit his mature appearance and alter his driver's license to make it appear that he was ten years older to get a job. However Abagnale, posing as a high school dropout in his mid-twenties, quickly learned the more education one has, the more one is paid. Desperate to survive, he soon began working as a confidence trickster to earn money.
His first confidence trick was writing personal checks on his own overdrawn account, an activity which he discovered was possible when he was forced to write checks for more money than was in the account. This, however, would only work for a limited time before the bank demanded payment, so he moved on to opening other accounts in different banks, eventually creating new identities to sustain this charade. Over time, he experimented and developed different ways of defrauding banks, such as printing out his own almost-perfect copies of checks, depositing them and persuading banks to advance him cash on the basis of money in his accounts. The money, of course, never materialized as the checks deposited in it were rejected.
One of Abagnale's famous tricks was to print his account number on blank deposit slips and add them to the stack of real blank slips in the bank. This meant that the deposits written on those slips by bank customers ended up going into his account rather than that of the legitimate customers. He collected over $40,000 by this method before he was discovered. By the time the bank began looking into his case, Abagnale had collected all the money and had already changed his identity.
Pan American World Airways estimates that between the ages of 16 and 18, Frank Abagnale flew over 1,000,000 miles on over 250 flights and flew to 26 countries, at Pan Am's expense, through deadheading. He was also able to stay at hotels for free during this time.
He claims to have forged a Columbia University degree and taught sociology at Brigham Young University for a semester working as a teaching assistant. To teach the class, he read a chapter ahead of his students.
Later, he impersonated a paediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the name "Frank Conners". He chose to do this after nearly being caught by police after leaving a flight in New Orleans. Aware of possible capture, he retired to Georgia for the time being. When filling out an application for an apartment he listed his previous occupation as "doctor" fearing that the owner might check with Pan Am if he had listed "pilot". After becoming friends with a real doctor who lived next door, he became a resident supervisor as a favour for him until they found someone who could take the job. He did not find the job difficult because the supervisor does not do any actual medical work. However, as a medical layman, Abagnale was nearly discovered after almost letting a baby die through oxygen deprivation (he had no idea what the nurse meant when she said there was a "blue baby"). Abagnale was able to fake his way through most of his duties by letting the interns handle most of the cases that came in during his late night shift, for example setting broken bones and other such tasks. After two and a half months, the hospital finally found another replacement and he returned to the air. (In an interview with Frank Abagnale, he said that the supervisor had a death in the family and had to fly out West, during which Abagnale took the position)
Abagnale forged a Harvard University law transcript, passed the bar exam of Louisiana and got a job at the office of the state attorney general of Louisiana at the age of nineteen. This happened while he was posing as Pan Am First Officer "Robert Black". He told a stewardess he had briefly dated that he was also a Harvard law student and she introduced him to a lawyer friend. Abagnale was told the bar needed more lawyers and was offered a chance to apply. After making a fake transcript from Harvard, he prepared himself for the compulsory exam. Despite failing twice, he claims to have passed the bar exam legitimately on the third try after 8 weeks of study, because, "Louisiana at the time allowed you to (take) the Bar over and over as many times as you needed. It was really a matter of eliminating what you got wrong."
In his biography, he described the premise of his legal job as a "gopher boy" who simply fetched coffee and books for his boss. However, there was a real Harvard graduate who also worked for that attorney general, and he hounded him with questions about his tenure at Harvard. Naturally, Abagnale could not answer questions about a university he had never attended, and he later resigned after eight months to protect himself, after learning the suspicious graduate was making inquiries into his background.
Capture and imprisonment
Eventually he was caught in France in 1969 when an Air France attendant recognized his face from a wanted poster. When the French police apprehended him, more than 20 of the countries in which he had committed fraud wanted to extradite him. He first served prison time in Perpignan's House of Arrest in France; a one year sentence that was reduced to six months. His stay in Perpignan left him fearful of spending more time in another version of the prison.
He was then extradited to Sweden where he was treated fairly well under Swedish law. During trial for forgery, his defence attorney almost had his case dismissed by arguing that he had "created" the fake checks and not forged them, but his charges were reduced to fraud. He served six months in a Malmö prison, only to learn at the end of it he would be tried next in Italy. Later, a Swedish judge asked a U.S. State Department official to revoke his passport. Without a valid passport Swedish authorities were forced to deport him to the U.S. He was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for multiple counts of forgery.
While being extradited to the U.S., Abagnale claims to have escaped from a British VC-10 airliner as it was turning onto a taxi strip at New York's JFK International Airport. Abagnale purported in his biography (originally published in 1980) to have removed the toilet knobs in the plane's lavatory and squeezed through a two-foot-square hatch cover before dropping ten feet to the tarmac below. Under cover of night, he scaled a nearby fence and hailed a cab to Grand Central Terminal. After stopping in the Bronx to change clothes and pick up a set of keys to a Montreal bank safe deposit box containing $20,000 US, Abagnale caught a train to Montreal's Dorval airport (now Montreal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport) to purchase a ticket to São Paulo, Brazil, a country with which the U.S. has no extradition treaty. On his way to Montreal he had a close call at a Mac's Milk in Dundas Ontario. He was caught by a constable of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while standing in line at the ticket counter and subsequently handed over to U.S. Border Patrol.
Before being sentenced to 12 years in the Federal Correction Institution at Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1971, Abagnale also purportedly escaped the Federal Detention Centre in Atlanta, Georgia while awaiting trial, which he considers in his book to be one of the most infamous escapes in history. During the time, U.S. prisons were being condemned by civil rights groups and investigated by congressional committees. In a stroke of luck that included the accompanying U.S. marshal forgetting his detention commitment papers, Abagnale was mistaken for an undercover prison inspector and was even given privileges and food far better than the other inmates. The FDC in Atlanta had already lost two employees as a result of reports written by undercover federal agents, and Abagnale took advantage of their vulnerability. He contacted a friend (called in his book "Jean Sebring") who posed as his fiancée and slipped him the business card of "Inspector C.W. Dunlap" of the Bureau of Prisons which she had obtained by posing as a freelance writer doing an article on "fire safety measures in federal detention centres". She also handed over a business card from "Sean O'Riley" (later revealed to be Joseph Shea), the FBI agent in charge of Abagnale's case, which she doctored at a stationery print shop. Abagnale told the guards that he was indeed a prison inspector and handed over Dunlap's business card as proof. He told them that he needed to contact FBI agent, Sean O'Riley, on a matter of urgent business. O'Riley's phone number was dialled and picked up by Jean Sebring, at a payphone in an Atlanta shopping-mall, posing as an operator at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later, he was allowed to meet unsupervised with O'Riley in a predetermined car outside the detention centre. Sebring, incognito, picked Abagnale up and drove him to an Atlanta bus station where he took a Greyhound bus to New York, and soon thereafter, a train to Washington D.C.. Abagnale bluffed his way through an attempted capture by posing as an FBI agent after being recognized by a motel registration clerk. Still bent on making his way to Brazil, Abagnale was picked up a few weeks later by two New York City police detectives when he inadvertently walked past their unmarked police car.
In 1974, after serving less than five years, the United States federal government released him on condition that he would help the federal authorities against fraud and scam artists without pay.
After his release, Abagnale tried several jobs, including cook, grocer and movie projectionist, but he was fired from most of these upon having his criminal career discovered via background checks. Finding them unsatisfying, he approached a bank with an offer. He explained to the bank what he had done, and offered to speak to the bank's staff and show various tricks that "paperhangers" use to defraud banks.
That same year, Abagnale made an offer to the bank that if they did not find his speech helpful, they owed him nothing; otherwise, they owed him $500 and would spread his name to other banks. Naturally, they were very impressed, and he began a legitimate life as a security consultant.
He later founded Abagnale & Associates, which advises the business world on fraud. Through this system, he raised enough money to pay back all those he scammed over his criminal career. Abagnale is now a millionaire through his legal fraud detection and avoidance consulting business based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Abagnale also continues to advise the FBI, with whom he has associated for over 30 years, by teaching at the FBI Academy and lecturing for FBI field offices throughout the country. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, whom he married one year after becoming legitimate. They have three sons.
In 1977, Abagnale appeared on the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth, along with two contestants also presenting themselves as him. Clips from this episode appeared in Catch Me if You Can interspersed with new footage featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio in his place.
Abagnale had a bit part in Catch Me if You Can as one of the French police officers arresting his character.
In the early 1990s, Abagnale featured as a recurring guest on the UK Channel 4 television series Secret Cabaret. The show was based around magic and illusions with a sinister, almost gothic presentation style. Abagnale featured as an expert exposing various confidence tricks.
In 2007, Abagnale appeared in a short role as a speaker in the BBC TV series The Real Hustle. He spoke of different scams run by fraudsters.
In 2002, Abagnale wrote The Art of the Steal. In the chapters, he listed common confidence tricks and ways to prevent consumers from being defrauded. He also talked about identity theft and the advent of Internet scamming.
Catch Me If You Can, 2000. ISBN 978-0-7679-0538-1 (used as a source for most of the biography)
The Art of the Steal, Broadway Books, 2001. ISBN 978-0-7679-0683-8
Real U Guide To Identity Theft, 2004. ISBN 978-1932999013
Stealing Your Life, Random House/Broadway Books, April 2007. ISBN 978-0767925860
Portrayal of Abagnale
Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Abagnale in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can. The film is based on his exploits as described in his book of the same name (ISBN 978-0-7679-0538-1), but alters many aspects of his life story for dramatic purposes.