Quiet Man On the Run: The Story of Frank Abagnale, World-Renound Con-Artist

Frank Abagnale holding a picture of himself. | Courtesy of AARP.
Frank Abagnale holding a picture of himself. | Courtesy of AARP.

Without a thought, he cashed in the fraudulent checks that he had been faking for years. As his only source of money, this is the one crime Abagnale could not stop committing. Wanting to settle down, he faked a diploma and convinced everyone that he indeed had credentials. As he “retired” from a life full of con schemes and trickery, Frank Abagnale took on the job of a small-town physician. He proceeded to pretend to live out the typical life of a bachelor in the American dream, filled with having a small apartment, a dream job, and peace and quiet all around. However, his simple life was about to be turned upside down when the Feds came knocking on his door.1

Frank Abagnale as a pilot in the cockpit of commercial airplane | Courtesy of Speilberg

Frank William Abagnale had been in the criminal world for a long time before he decided to finally settle down. From minor crimes like lying about his age, to major ones, like creating a fake Airplane pilot license, he did it all.2 At his core, he craved the thrill that came with always being ahead of the law. However, when he realized that his risks had become too much for him to handle all at once, he began to consider the benefits that a relatively normal life offered. After some internal debate, Abagnale decided to move to France and finally make a life for himself outside of the criminal world. He considered abandoning his life of crime mainly because he found no satisfaction from running from the law anymore. He wanted a normal life, the one always seen as the American Dream.3 Although he had all but abandoned crime, he was not prepared for the ironic turn that his life was about to take.

As Frank Abagnale prepared to move to France to finalize his decision to straighten out, the FBI was hard at work trying to figure out who he was. Having heard many things about an emerging con-artist, they realized that they needed to act soon, as their perpetrator had great potential to slip through their fingers. The investigator on the Abagnale case quickly contacted other Bureaus in countries that Abagnale had committed crimes in, and put up wanted posters that could help citizens identify him. At the height of the case, agencies in France, Sweden, and the United States all cooperated in hunting Abagnale down. Despite their best efforts, however, all hopes of finding Abagnale began to fade. He had completely disappeared from their radar, and the agencies were running out of options.4

Miraculously, a young woman was able to answer their questions before the investigation faded into obscurity. A name was never mentioned in reports, but she was later confirmed to be a stewardess for Air France and the ex-girlfriend of Frank Abagnale. She had seen one of the wanted posters that the international agencies had posted and ultimately decided to turn him into the authorities. Many theories mentioned her as the ex-girlfriend that wanted revenge, but this could never be confirmed. This was the first time that the FBI had gotten ahead of Abagnale.5 Using the newfound tip, the three countries were able to compile enough information to make an official arrest in 1969, when Abagnale was just twenty-one and living in a small town in Southern France.6

At the time, Abagnale thought that treatment in European prisons was inhumane. Abagnale was kept in a dark cell, with no electricity, heating, proper sanitation, or bed. The situation was so pressing that the young criminal would later claim that his time in the local Perpignan prison was one of the hardest periods of his entire life. By the end of his stay, he went from one-hundred ninety-eight pounds to just under one-hundred and ten pounds.6 When he was transferred to a Swedish prison, he found it largely similar in treatment. It was in that cold and dark Swedish prison that Abagnale truly gave up hope. Lying on that cold, steely floor, he finally realized that he had lost everything. Although it was never truly his, losing his sense of freedom and the idea of living a normal life deeply affected Abagnale. He spent about six months in France and another six months in Sweden. After his tour of European prisons, he was extradited by the United States in 1971 to serve his last sentence. Once in the United States, a federal judge sentenced Abagnale to twelve years in federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, it seemed like Abagnale would never get a happy ending.8

Frank Abagnale now gives oral presentations as part of the FBI. |Courtesy of CRN 2017.
Frank Abagnale giving an oral presentation for the FBI | Courtesy of CRN 2017

Everything changed, however, when the FBI came knocking on Abagnale’s prison cell door in 1986. After four years in federal prison, he was offered a new sentence: If he were to help the FBI in solving crimes similar to his, they would allow him to serve the remainder of his sentence and finish his parole conditions with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.6 In the end, Abagnale got what he always wanted: a normal life filled with uncomplicated things. After Frank Abagnale served his sentence with the FBI, he decided to continue working for the agency. He’s been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for forty years following his release, and now gives conferences on how to stop cybercrime, fraud, and identity theft.

Frank Abagnale’s collection of novels | Courtesy of Abagnale and Associates

As an honest civilian, he married his wife, Kelly Anne Welbes Abagnale, who he’s been happy with for over thirty years. Together they had three children, Sean, Scott, and Chris Abagnale. He became a professional writer, and he even got his life etched out in a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.10 He accomplished his life goals, through legal processes of course, and much more. In the end, his capture by the FBI was not the end of his life, but rather, it was the beginning.

  1. Frank Abagnale Frank and Stan Redding, Catch Me If You Can: the True Story Of A Real Fake (London: Mainstream Digital, 2011), 72.
  2. Frank Abagnale Frank and Stan Redding, Catch Me If You Can: the True Story Of A Real Fake (London: Mainstream Digital, 2011), 22.
  3. Patrick Lynch, “Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.” History Collection, July 2017, http://historycollection.co/catch-can-real-story-frank-abagnale-jr/
  4. Patrick Lynch, “Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.” History Collection, July 2017, http://historycollection.co/catch-can-real-story-frank-abagnale-jr/
  5. Frank Abagnale Frank and Stan Redding, Catch Me If You Can: the True Story Of A Real Fake (London: Mainstream Digital, 2011), 89.
  6. FedScoop, “Frank Abagnale – FedTalks 2013,” YouTube, June 20, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJIc16aqpO8.
  7. FedScoop, “Frank Abagnale – FedTalks 2013,” YouTube, June 20, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJIc16aqpO8.
  8. Frank Abagnale Frank and Stan Redding, Catch Me If You Can: the True Story Of A Real Fake. (London: Mainstream Digital, 2011), 244.
  9. FedScoop, “Frank Abagnale – FedTalks 2013,” YouTube, June 20, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJIc16aqpO8.
  10. Frank Abagnale Frank and Stan Redding, Catch Me If You Can: the True Story Of A Real Fake (London: Mainstream Digital, 2011), 24-37.

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This Post Has 44 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Saira Locke

    This article on Frank Abagnale is a perfect example that people can change for the better. Abagnale committed many illegal crimes for which he did not get caught for many years which really surprises me. I am glad that the FBI eventually caught up to him and Abagnale finally faced punishment. I don’t think that Abagnale should have served any time in non-US prisons because it was the FBI who caught him. Putting him in these foreign prisons is in a way torture to an American citizen. I think that it is great that his illegal acts now help the FBI in solving similar crimes through the mind of a criminal who had committed them before.

  2. Avatar
    Cristianna Tovar

    The lengths that Frank Abagnale went to pretend that he was wealthy and successful is unbelievable. From lying about his age to creating fake documents such as a diploma and an airplane pilot license, his actions were selfish and incredibly illegal. It was smart of the FBI investigator on the case to contact other countries’ Bureaus in case that Abagnale was planning to flee the country, which he was. The fact that Frank Abagnale was so young when he was arrested saddens me because he could’ve done so many influential and positive things with himself instead of committing fraud. However, I found it so uplifting that he found a true passion for working for the FBI to stop fraud and other crimes. It’s very ironic, however, that someone who was once on the FBI’s most-wanted list is now working with them. Great article!

  3. Avatar
    Leopoldo Martinez-Milland

    When someone is as sneaky and as great at doing something, just like Frank Abagnale was at being a conman at such a young age, it’s kinda hard not to root for them. Lilia Seijas did a great job taking the reader into the life of Abagnale, from his days of forging checks to working for the FBI, and all the way to having a film made about his life starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It is an interesting life that this man lived. This was a well-written article that piqued my interest on the topic at hand and has already made me open another tab to learn more about him.

  4. Avatar
    Cassandra Sanchez

    I thought it was really interesting how Abagnale managed to commit all these crimes at such a young age and managed to eventually turn his life around and use his knowledge to help the FBI and make a positive difference. He had to experience the rough conditions of the jails but eventually he got what he really wanted and was able to help and speak out against what he was famous for.

  5. Avatar
    Briana Montes

    Very well written article. This was a crazy story. I was never aware that someone can fake their diploma nor their pilot license. I find it scary because it gets me to thinking what if someone actually does these things now a days. I was confused on to how someone can go so long without being caught. Overall this was a very interesting and well written article to read.

  6. Avatar
    Victoria Davis

    It’s such an interesting article that just hooks you to want to read more. I do believe he should have served more time, the prisons he served that were not in the United States were cruel, but he had to do the time for the crimes he committed. He really was able to live wealthy and freely before getting caught, really having no worries. Yet he lied about everything and in the end, he got the life he wanted.

  7. Avatar
    Azucena Cuevas

    This article is really well written and entertaining.I can’t believe he was able to get away with all those crimes for so long. He seemed to be a genius con-artist. It’s also impressive how his life changed drastically. He was able to get a second chance at life and re start from where he ended. He even ended up helping the FBI catch other criminals that did the same thing as him.

  8. Isabella Torres
    Isabella Torres

    I think it is so fascinating how Abagnale had such a drastic change of heart in deciding to completely abandon crime after relying on it for his source of income and satisfaction. It is also interesting how young he was when all of this was happening. He definitely deserved to go to jail, but the conditions he experienced were awful. However, the conditions he faced were most likely a large driving factor in his decision to begin helping the FBI catch people who did the exact same things he once did.

  9. Avatar
    Vania Gonzalez

    We have so many movies based on con artist and their lifestyle and they always show how they have fun doing these crimes but they never show that they may get tired just like Abagnale did and just wanted to have a normal life in the end. This article is very interesting it says a lot about the human nature and how we have an inner conscious that tells us to settle down after we begin to feel guilt from the bad things we do. Certain events that we go through can change our mindset and for Abagnale it was spending time in the Perpignan prison and enduring those harsh conditions that changed his life for the better. Great article very well organized.

  10. Avatar
    Patricia Arechiga

    It is pretty crazy how the hunger of wealth and power can drive one to committing some of the most wicked actions. Though not necessarily being a murderer and or serial killer, the fact that Abagnale was able to scam companies and banks out of thousands of dollars along with invalid licenses (ie pilot) is pretty remarkable. Despite his actions at the time, the change of circumstances often lead individuals to reflecting on their actions. Pretty crazy how it took Abagnale the loss of access to wealth and power to reflect on his actions, which resulted in the change of his mindset.

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