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Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 2002 / 25 Teves, 5763

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Consumer Reports

Friendly impostor
enjoyed flying free | I met Frank Abagnale before he was Leonardo DiCaprio.

In other words, I knew Abagnale years ago, when he was just known as a professional thief and liar.

Today, he is the subject of a Steven Spielberg movie in which Abagnale is played by DiCaprio. The movie also stars Tom Hanks, has gotten some good reviews and will probably be a big hit.

But way back more than 20 years ago, when Abagnale walked into my office, all I saw was a round, pleasant-faced man who looked more like the Pillsbury Doughboy than one of the most successful imposters in U.S. history.

Before he was 30, Abagnale had cashed more than $2 million in bad checks and had posed as an airline pilot, state prosecutor and a doctor.

But don't get any ideas about how this might be a good career move for you: By the time I met Abagnale, he had also spent four years in various prisons.

After doing time, he decided he could do better teaching businesses how to stop being played for suckers, and now he is a forgery and fraud consultant.

But as a young man, he decided to drop out of high school and fulfill a boyhood dream: He would fly around the world posing as an airline pilot.

"I was walking up 42nd Street in New York City and saw some pilots coming out of the Commodore Hotel," he told me. "I figured, gee, that would be a good job. I knew that airline pilots could probably cash checks at hotels all around the country."

Abagnale went into a phone booth, called the purchasing office of Pan Am, said he was a pilot whose uniform had been stolen and was directed to the company that supplied uniforms to their pilots.

There, he picked up a full pilot's uniform and then went to an ID card company, where he got a sample that he easily turned into a realistic fake.

He went to an airport and posed as a pilot. He didn't fly the planes -- he didn't know how -- but he rode on them for free. He had no problems. He was 16.

"For the next two years, I flew 3 million miles and visited 82 countries -- all for free," Abagnale said. "I just went to any airline, except Pan Am, showed my ID and flew for free. I flew in the cockpit on a jump seat."

He financed his adventures on the ground by cashing bad checks. And in these more innocent, pre-high security days of American life, he had no troubles.

When he got bored with this after six years, he printed a phony law degree from Harvard, took the bar exam in Louisiana and became a member of the Louisiana attorney general's office.

When that began to pale, he moved to Atlanta and posed as a pediatrician for a while and then went back to flying around the world, posing as a pilot.

He got caught in Europe, spent six months in a French prison and six months in a Swedish prison, and then allowed himself to be extradited to the United States to face charges.

But as soon as his SAS jet landed at Kennedy airport in New York, "an idea came into my head," he said. He knew from his flying experience that there was a service door underneath the toilet in back of the plane.

He ran back there, lifted up the toilet, forced open the door and jumped to the ground. He was caught three months later, but he escaped from federal prison in Atlanta by posing as a federal jail inspector. A month later he was caught again and served about three years before being paroled.

Today, at 54, his website says of him that he is "one of the world's most respected authorities on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents." Of his past, Abagnale says: "I have always felt that what I did was illegal, unethical and immoral. It is not something I am proud of."

But he sure had fun.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate