SXSW 2012: Catch Me If You Can Frank Abagnale 10 Years Later


SXSW 2012 Live Blog: Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale 10 Years Later

#sxsw #CatchFrank

Frank Abagnale speaking at SXSW 2012
Frank Abagnale speaking at SXSW 2012

So, it’s Saturday afternoon here at SXSW and the crowds are intense. Luckily I had a chance to grab a bite between live blog sessions. Next up: The amazing Frank Abagnale and Catching him, if you can. If you’ve seen the Tom Hanks movie of Catch Me If You Can you know all about Frank and his, ahem, prior work, and new work now. So here we go…

Frank tells the story of his life, which as you might imagine is not exactly like the movie. Turns out he never did meet his dad after he ran out of the divorce hearing. He saw his mom again 7 years later. His first job was in a store much like his dad’s store which was a stationery establishment.

He altered the digit on his id card to gain 10 years, so that he could get more money at work vs. being a 16 year old. When he started writing checks that bounced he realized NY was no longer a good place to go. He was walking in NY at the Commodore hotel, now the Grand Hyatt, when he noticed the pilots coming out of the hotel and loading into the van. He realized that being a pilot would be a great identity to get more checks to cash.

He focused on Pan Am and called purchasing, told them he was with Pan Am based in the west coast, but lost his outfit. He went down to the Well Built Uniform Company and got a uniform. For payment, he filled out a form, as they wouldn’t take cash or checks. He went to LaGuardia walking around but couldn’t figure out how to get on the planes.

During a lunch break the captain of another airline, who mentioned that Pan Am doesn’t go to LaGuardia. He said he was stuck there going to Kennedy. Asked about ‘equipment’ he was on.  He said GE, catching the pilot’s attention.

He noticed they had ID tags. He looked at companies that made badges, he found it was 3M Polaroid. He called a manufacturer and told them he wanted a sample Pan Am example card because they were thinking of buying the system. He suggested they show him how to use the card machines and they said fine, sit here!

The laminate card had everything except for the logos. He notice models of Pan Am 707s at a hobby shop, and bought it, and took the logo off the plane and added it to the ID card. He flew on every other airline except for pan am, flying over 1MM miles. He’d get a pass to do dead head on jump seats. He would have the same questions, and answer them the same way over and over again.

He would find the hotel and take the airline crew van to the hotel which had an agreement with the hotel to cash a check up to $100. He would go to many hotels to cash checks, then after a shift change would go back and re-cash all new checks.

The FBI was after him on a John Doe, so he went to Atlanta and came up with the occupation of Dr. on the apartment form.  Dr Frank Williams Pediatrician was his new name. After a while he was introduced to a new neighbor, Dr Gordon, who was the Dr running the pediatrics board at the local hospital. So, he went to the library and read the johns Hopkins lasts magazine and bother his new neighbor, talking shop.

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A call mentioned that he could help temporarily in the hospital, which arranged for a temporary license to administer the hospital.

He passed the Louisiana bar, but in 2 months.

He used to open a bank account with his fake bank id, waiting for the checks to arrive in about 2 weeks. He learned that temporary deposit slips were numerous and readily available, and came up with the idea of adding his account magnetically to those slips. He bought a Burroughs 1000 magnetic encoder, took many bank slips from the public counter and went home to place his account magnetically at the bottom of each, then brought them back to the bank place them back in the public dispenser.

He went to the airport, noticing cash and receipts were being put into cash bags and drop them into the drop box. He had rented a security guard uniform, and placed a sign on the box saying “box out of order, give bags to security guard” and they gave him the bags.

The French were the only ones to catch him. He entered the French jail at 198 pounds and left at 109 pounds. He was extradited to Sweden, where he served time then went to the US where he served 4 years of a 12 year term. The FBI took him out of prison early in exchange for working for them. He’s been working at the FBI ever since. His oldest son makes computer games in China. Youngest boy is an FBI agent as well after having received a law degree.

He receives no money and was not able to participate in the film due to FBI regulations. He has spent over 30 years helping his country. He gets emails from people from 8 to 80 especially after watching his films. He feels if he had been brilliant he could have figured out a way to live without stealing. He was gifted some people say, and he felt that was true because of his dad.

His dad would always tell him and his brothers and sisters that he loved them before they would go to bed each night. Sixteen year olds are in his opinion children who need their mother and father. Divorce he says is a devastating thing over a child’s life. A stranger (the family court judge) told him at 16 to pick a parent, so he ran away and spent the next many years alone, crying to sleep each night.

He knew he would eventually get caught, and when he was he went to bad places. His dad had died due to a fall in a NY subway, and he never had a chance to see his dad again. He feels he owes his country and that’s why he’s served 23 years past when he had to. Three presidents have pardoned him, but he’s never accepted the pardons. He met his wife in Houston, and broke protocol to tell her who he was. His wife, he says, and everything he has is because of his wife.

He says if you still have your mother and father, give them a hug and kiss while you still can. For the men in the audience, it’s not about money or positions or degrees. A real man is faithful and loves his wife, and puts his children first in his life.  He says he’s done nothing better than to be a good husband and a good father, and that’s the best thing he could possible say about his life.

And with that he opens the floor to questions, and there is a standing ovation from the audience.

Q: is it easier to do this today?

A: Absolutely, in my day to forge a check you had to have a Heidelberg press which would barely fit in a giant room. Today he can forge a four color check for Delta, buy the check paper, color printer and print fake checks. Even making a fake airline ID today is still simple.

Q: Were you at all “playing?” as a kid doing those things?

A: I had three stages, first I had to survive on the streets in NY. Then it was people chasing me, and finally it was me running away so they couldn’t catch me, which to a certain extent was playing, but I always knew that I would get caught.

Q: Did you really sneak out of the back of the airplane that way?

A: Spielberg had a big research team to ask people what I did and did his best to make the story true. In a real I escaped through the service area of the aircraft, not the toilet. He was desperate, but not that desperate. I never did meet my mom, so there was no little girl in the window.

Q: Did you impersonate a substitute teacher?

A: yes I did.

Q: Did you tell your wife and how did you do that?

A: She was working at an orphanage; I went there to investigate the place, as one of three other Master of Social Works and went to work there. My wife was finishing a Masters in child psychology. I had to have a different story, different name, met her parents with that false identity. Normally I would say as the assignment is over that there’s a death in the family and I will leave for a short time, then call to say I’m not coming back. I told my wife my real name, that I was not a Master of Social Work, that I work for the FBI and that my assignment is over. She asked if I was a govt agent, and I said yes but not by choice and had to go into the whole thing.

Q: Would you do that over again?

A: No, it was very lonely, I gave up my teen years, I spent many years in prison. You could never make friends because people don’t like to be deceived. If I could live it over again I would not do it. People will tell you life is short, but life is very long. When you make a mistake in life you have to live with that for the rest of your life. As time goes by what didn’t bother you then will bother you in the future.

Q: Do you have a professional goal you still have to achieve?

A: There’s still books I’d like to write. I’ve spent the last few years talking to consumers. If you educate the victim and tell them how to eliminate the risks they do better. We do a horrible job of educating people about protecting themselves. If I make them aware of it by books and TV that helps the education. There is no master criminal doing a breach. Usually there’s an employee doing something they shouldn’t be doing, which opens the breach, open the door for someone, which allows the bad guys to get into the system.

Q: Can you elaborate on the NYC hot dog cart where a cop recognizes you.

A: Yes, I escaped and that’s what I was convicted of. A NYC police detective caught me in Manhattan.

Q: What about your bothers and sisters?

A: my younger brother recently passed away a few years ago. My sister is now retired. My brother is retired form a catholic school in NY. I get to go see my mother in NY a lot.

Q: In the movie, you bought James bond suites and a vehicle, did that happen?

A: No, I liked nice clothes and car, but there was no James bond thing, Spielberg just picked up on my interest in nice clothes and cars, but there was no Austin Martin. The greatest thing I had was I was a kid so I had no fear of getting caught. I didn’t think about things, I just did them. If I was a bit older, I probably would have rationalized things to death. When the FBI agent came into my room I just said I was secret service, I didn’t think of that.

Q: Do you show your badge in security, do people react?

A: No, most people don’t know my face.

Identity theft is a very serious crime. Even back in 1988 I wrote about it, back then you had to go get the information by going to the microfiche to get data. Last year we had 1MM kids bullied on Facebook. Creeper is a application that lets me know where your kids are. I can take a picture and use that for face recognition. Don’t tell people what State you were born in. Put a pic of you on Facebook but with other people. Don’t put your date of birth. The Wall Street Journal said they look at Facebook pages before they hire them, and won’t hire if they see something bad. Writing something when you are 13 can come back to haunt you because hiring folks.

Protect your identity – Shred everything, the only one that shreds write is a micro shredder. Look for a box that says “Micro shredder.” Privacy Guard is a service I help found and I stand by it today. 10 of 12 financial institutions use it. It monitors all three credit agencies and monitors in real time along with letting you know in real time. I don’t write checks very often because they have too much information. I don’t use a debit card. I use a credit card. It’s the safest form of payment. When you use your credit card you build your credit, get points, and get more credit. A debit card gives you nothing. The greatest thing a parent can do is give the child a supplemental credit card to help them build their credit.

Send questions to [email protected], I will answer them eventually, and I answer each one, or send it to someone who can answer it.

And with that another huge round of applause and Frank thanks us, and I thank you for reading this!


  1. I really appreciate this writeup. Very well done. I was one of the unfortunate ones who was turned away by 3:20 on Saturday. Do you know if SXSW will offer a video simulcast to badge holders? -Jason

  2. Hi Jason,

    You’re welcome, glad you were able to at least get my notes. I don’t know if they will simulcast to badge holders, but they definitely should. The number one complaint I’m hearing is that sessions are too full and people are being turned away. Considering the high price of the tickets that seems a legitimate issue.

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