Teaching assistant. Attorney. Physician. Airline pilot. These are just four of the eight identities Frank Abagnale Jr. assumed between the ages of 15 to 21 years old. Now a security consultant and a lecturer for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Abagnale has been dubbed the “greatest con-artist of all time.” His stories have inspired the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio titled Catch Me If You Can, which then served as inspiration for the 2011 Broadway musical of the same name starring Aaron Tveit. Clearly, Abagnale does not shy away from sharing his secrets. So how did such a young man get started on a path of crime?
As Abagnale himself states in a 60 Minutes Australia interview, it started as a survival tactic. As a teenage runaway on the streets of New York, his first step was to have people believe he was an adult. This entailed altering his driver’s license to make him out to be ten years older. When he noticed a group of pilots at a hotel, he decided that impersonating a pilot would make him look older and more legitimate when he would cash fraudulent checks.
Posing as a pilot, he made a phone call to airline Pan American World Airways claiming to be a pilot who lost his uniform and obtained one through the use of a fake employee ID number. Finally, he forged a Federal Aviation Administration pilot’s license. Pan Am estimates that Abagnale flew on approximately 250 flights, summing up to over 1 million miles to 26 countries, between the ages of 16 to 18. Note that on these flights, Abagnale “deadheaded,” meaning he simply flew for free as a passenger on flights due to his status as a company employee. Even sweeter, his hotels and food were typically charged to the airline as well. Although he was usually a passenger, it is common courtesy among pilots to offer the controls to those who were deadheading. On one occasion, Abagnale accepted, though he quickly put the plane on autopilot upon realizing that the lives of 140 people were in his hands.
Abagnale credits the feeling of invincibility and a craving for adventure that only a teenager knows when asked what inspired him to continue to engage in such high-risk activities. He also describes his younger self as “opportunistic” above everything else. He didn’t seek out to fly a million miles for free initially; it was an opportunity that presented itself when he was picking up his pilot uniform. The woman at the counter asked Abagnale if he would pay for a seat or ride the jump seat, upon which he of course replied that he would ride the jump seat. What started as a charade to allow him to cash his checks without rousing suspicion snowballed into his pilot character.
What carried Abagnale through his impersonations was a combination of unshakeable confidence and studying whatever industry he was in. In his 2013 FedTalks, he states that once he picked up on airline jargon, it became easy to talk shop with other pilots, claiming that it was the same conversation over and over. Additionally, he states that he never flew on Pan Am, only on other airlines, so as not to run into anyone who could potentially blow his cover. He also details that later, when he assumed his physician persona, he would memorize parts of a medical journal every night simply to have the knowledge in his back pocket, and delegate tasks to interns so that he never really performed any procedures himself.
Abagnale is put on a pedestal for his endeavors in his teenage years, though he himself recognizes that his actions were “immoral, illegal, unethical and a burden to live with every single day of [his] life.” In his 60 Minutes Australia interview, he states that he feels remorse for deceiving people once he had realized that it was “devastating” to them. He has served time in prison, repaid the millions he gained fraudulently, and continues to work with the FBI.