Frank Abagnale, Jr. is one of the most famous con artists in history. Some say he is the best, although pedants would point out that the best confidence tricksters are the ones you’ve never heard about. Nonetheless, Abagnale led an extraordinary life where he assumed up to eight identities, cashed approximately $2.5 million worth of bad checks (his estimate), and lived a fast-paced life filled with drama and suspense; all by the time he was 21 years old. The movie ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is based on his life story, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the role of Abagnale.
He was born on April 27, 1948, in New York and his father, Frank Sr., and mother, Paulette, divorced when he was 14 years old. Abagnale was extremely close to his father, and he viewed him as a role model. He used to attend business meetings with his father, and this is where he learned details about business transactions. Despite having a relatively stable childhood, Abagnale soon resorted to petty crimes such as shoplifting. However, he quickly grew bored of it and sought a greater criminal challenge.
Ironically, Abagnale’s father was the first victim of his con artist career. When he was 15, he called various gas stations and told the owners to ring him up for merchandise (such as tires), but gave him a cash sum well below the real value of the products. Abagnale used his father’s charge card for the scam for about a month, until his father received a bill for $3,400. What Abagnale didn’t know was that his father was struggling financially.
His mother sent him to a school for ‘troubled boys,’ and during that period his father lost his business. Meanwhile, Abagnale left home at the age of 16 and earned just $1.50 an hour for his first job. He believed the low pay was due to his age rather than the lack of a high school degree, so he altered his ID to pretend he was 10 years older.
The Beginning of a Crime Spree
Abagnale was a master check forger and was apparently the first to exploit the routing of checks via the numbers on the code line. However, he had difficulties at the beginning because the practice of writing bad checks and overdrawing his account only happened for so long before banks demanded payment.
As a result, it was necessary to use innovative methods of conning people out of money. On one occasion, he took a batch of bank deposit slips, prefilled his account number and placed them back in the stack. The reason? Abagnale noticed that most people left the account number section blank, but the banks always went by the section if it was filled. The next morning, he woke up to find $42,000 in his account.
Abagnale soon realized that he would have more success with his bad checks if he could showcase an air of authority. He knew that pilots were well-respected individuals, so he used his cunning to acquire a uniform. It was here that his career as a con artist quite literally ‘took off.’