REVIEW: Catch Me If You Can

What: The amazing book that inspired the Steven Spielberg film.
Where: Bookstores Everywhere!
When: Though out of print for years, now available anywhere.
How Much: $10.47 at Amazon

What is it about “elegant crime” that’s so appealing to us? I don’t think anyone ever dreams about being a violent criminal, but I – and a lot of others out there – feel a pang of jealousy and\or envy when I watch movies about complex jewel heists or art thefts. Somehow using your wits, cunning and a bunch of high-tech gadgets is appealing and darn-near sexy in the commission of a crime, yet sticking up old ladies at ATMs is appalling. Most of us at some point in our lives cheered for – and maybe even wanted to be – Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair or Robert DeNiro in The Score or Gene Hackman in The Heist. But what if the best crime story you ever heard was actually real?

“I stole every nickel and blew it on fine threads, luxurious lodgings, fantastic foxes, and other sensual goodies. I partied in every capital in Europe and basked on all the world’s most famous beaches.”

The 1980 non-fiction book Catch Me If You Can is the amazing true story of Frank Abagnale – a young man that defied law enforcement for years using his wits, forgery skills, good looks and calm demeanor. Abagnale would successfully impersonate a pilot, doctor, lawyer and professor. He wrote $2.5 million worth of bad checks in the 1970s – that’s over $10 million in today’s dollars! His mind was like a sponge; Abagnale was easily able to learn and retain more knowledge of how checking accounts work than most bank managers. He invented several new tricks for writing bad checks. He understood people and how they work. And oh yeah – he did all of this before the age of 21!

“Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sign it ‘U.R. Hooked’ and cash it any any bank in town using a Hong Kong drivers’ license for ID.”
– The former chief of police of Houston, Texas

Allow me to describe his genius to you with a couple of examples. Abagnale originally began his life of crime by opening checking accounts with small amounts of money and then cashing checks on the accounts far exceeding the amount he had in his account. One $100 investment in a checking account could yield $2000 or more in cashed checks. Abagnale well understood the use of charm and good looks in getting tellers to pass his worthless checks. To this end, he was often looking for ways to make himself seem more credible. Back in the late 1960’s being an airline pilot was a job on par with being a doctor or lawyer. And people trust and respect a man in uniform, no? So he decided that a pilot’s uniform would make it easier to cash his bad checks.

Abagnale found the number for Pan Am’s tailors in New York and concocted a “woe is me” story about not having a uniform for a flight the next day. The tailor saw him immediately and fitted him with a brand-new uniform, making him only fill out a requisition form which he filled with gibberish. But to cash checks, he’d need his Pan Am employee ID card. So he next called the company that made the badges for Pan Am and arranged a sales meeting as a “representative of Carib Airlines of Puerto Rico”. In short, Abagnale was able to get a “sample” ID card “for his boss back at Carib” from the badge salesman, completely filled out as a co-pilot and completely genuine. The only problem now remaining was that the ID card didn’t have the Pan Am logo on it. Abagnale was walking around Manhattan trying to figure out what to do next when he walked past a hobby shop with a model Pam Am plane in the window. He rushed inside and bought one of the models – for the logo sticker inside. After “scratching” the sticker onto the ID, he was almost a “pilot”. He needed a pilot’s license. In a trade magazine he was able to find an ad for a place that made large, engraved copies of your pilot’s license; comic book readers might remember similar ads for metal Social Security cards. Abagnale ordered one, then paid a Brooklyn print shop to reduce it to card size for $5. Uniform, employee badge, pilot’s license; a 17 year-old was now a co-pilot for Pam Am. And this is only the start of his career as an imposter, folks. You simply won’t believe the scams he pulls “deadheading” on flights all over the globe and passing counterfeit Pam Am payroll checks at posh resorts all over the world!

Another example is a simple scam he pulled to get $40,000 from a bank without a gun. He opened an account with a couple of hundred dollars at a bank. He then got hold of a stack of deposit slips, went to a office supply store and bought a cheap MICR printer. He then printed his own account number on all the deposit slips. The next day he slipped the tainted slips back in to the lobby of the bank and for the next three days, unsuspecting customers walked into the branch, grabbed a deposit slip and unknowingly deposited their paycheck or birthday money into Frank’s account. He simply went to a different branch of the bank the following Monday and got a cashier’s check for the full $40,000 and left town. If you wonder why deposit slips disappeared from the bank for so many years, this is why. He soon learned about ABA numbers – the first 9 digits of the string of numbers at the bottom of your checks. At a time when most bank tellers didn’t even know what those numbers were for, Frank knew that he could make a forged check with an Atlanta bank address but a New York ABA number. In the days before everything became “connected”, one Atlanta bank would cash other local bank’s check, but then the other bank’s computer would spit it out and the check would be routed to New York. By the time the folks in New York had reviewed the check and returned it to Atlanta, two weeks would have passed and Frank would have been long gone with the money.

Abagnale could learn and take in knowledge like you wouldn’t believe. At one point, he fled to a “singles community” in north Atlanta. Because he thought there would be no children around, he passed himself off as a pediatrician on hiatus. Little did he know that the guy across the hall from him was a real pediatrician. The annoying neighbor would often want to come over and “talk shop”, so Abagnale spent hour after hour for a month in the Emory University med school library so that he could talk the talk and keep his cover. He eventually went on to work as as a supervising physician for the late-night shift at an Atlanta’s children’s hospital. Thankfully, he never had occasion to see a life-threatening injury.

Whether escaping FBI custody from a moving airplane or faking Harvard transcripts to get a job in the Louisiana state attorney general’s office or renting Rolls Royces to convince South Floridian bankers to cash completely worthless $50,000 checks, Abagnale’s story is simply amazing. Catch Me If You Can is a great read – it’s quick to go through and totally sucks you in. You can’t help but cheer for our hero, even if his writing style is dated – even for 1980. He spends a lot of time talking about “threads” and “chicks”. He goes waaaay overboard with dated clichés about the “hot babes”, almost to the point where one wonders if he’s trying to use the book as a platform for his sexual prowess. It’s always about the “lovely ladies”. Which is true, of course. Like most teenage boys, 16 year-old Frank was obsessed with girls. However, he wasn’t allowed to work after school – this being the 1960s and all – so he never had the money to taken them out. Aside from a tiny weekly allowance, his only other means of spending was his Dad’s Shell credit card. And one Friday afternoon, Frank – ever desperate for cash – asked the attendant if he would sell him some tires. The attendant said that the tires he already had were fine. “No, you can keep the tires. Just give me the cash. You can have the tires back to sell them to someone else!”. And thus, a world-class conman was born. His Dad’s Shell bill ended up almost hitting $3,000 before he was caught – the first time. What happened between the first and second times is one of the greatest true crime stories ever told.

MY RATING: A-

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