Catch Me If You Can shows the sad side of fraud

By Sarah Cunningham-Scharf | August 11, 2016 | Last updated on August 11, 2016
5 min read

Advisor versus Film: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Expert: Edward Sheehan, an ex-CRA investigator and a current CPA

Accuracy Rating: 8/10

In the 1960s, Frank Abagnale Jr. cashed millions of dollars of forged cheques and impersonated a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, all before he celebrated his 19th birthday. Abagnale Jr., who went on to help authorities catch other frauds, eventually wrote a book about his exploits. In 2002, Steven Spielberg brought the true-ish story of one of the most notorious con men in U.S. history to the big screen.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the young criminal, who is pursued by Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, a straight-laced FBI agent who heads a cheque fraud investigation team. Hanratty is based on real-life FBI agent Joseph Shea, who hunted Abagnale Jr. for years.

But how many of his brazen crimes — including tax evasion, cheque and identity fraud — would be possible today? We asked ex-CRA investigator and current CPA Edward Sheehan.

Tax evasion and dealing with banks

Throughout the film, the IRS hounds the young criminal’s father, Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken), for tax evasion. Despite his superior ability to persuade and cajole, Abagnale Sr. can’t secure a business loan because of his tax troubles.

Sheehan, who worked for CRA for 30 years and spent the latter portion of his career finding tax fraudsters like Abagnale Sr., says it’s accurate that someone being investigated for tax evasion would have difficulty receiving a bank loan.

“A creditor […] would be certainly nervous about lending money until that person fixes the problem they have with CRA,” Sheehan says.

Cheque fraud

A short time later, when Abagnale Jr.’s parents divorce and he must choose between living with his mother or his father, he runs away.

In an effort to earn enough money to get his family to reunite, Abagnale Jr. begins forging personal cheques. Some banks refuse to deposit cheques issued by other banks. To skirt this issue, Abagnale Jr. comes up with a plan after watching a Pan American pilot easily cash a payroll cheque at a hotel. In the 1960s, flying was glamorous and pilots got special treatment. Sheehan explains that though the hotel wouldn’t know the pilot, PanAm was a well-respected business.

After seeing this, Abagnale Jr. pretends to interview a Pan Am executive for a high school newspaper. He finds out how to forge an FAA license and a security badge, and how to secure a pilot’s uniform. His most impressive feat forging the payroll cheques. He buys toy Pan Am airplanes, dunks them in a bathtub, peels off the logo stickers and places the stickers on the cheques.

Hanratty catches on when he notices Abagnale Jr. is changing the routing numbers at the bottom of the cheques. Abagnale Jr. would deposit a cheque from a branch across the country so it would take longer to bounce.

Banks “have central clearing houses for these cheques to go through geographically,” says Sheehan. Cheques had to be sent back to their local clearing houses before they could be processed.

Sheehan says it’s actually easier to forge cheques today, as they are now mostly deposited by ATM rather than by tellers with specialized training, and signatures aren’t used to the same extent for identity verification. In addition, because digital cheque readers are better, banks don’t give investigators cancelled cheques anymore — they give them cheque images, which are a quarter the size of the original cheque.

“There are four cheques, front and back, to a page of paper,” Sheehan says. “As an auditor I got a magnifying glass because that’s the only way you can read these things, they’re so small. There’s no way you could detect fraud off of them. […] It does make it a little less likely you’d ever catch them.”

Identity fraud

Each of Abagnale Jr.’s schemes has an element of identity fraud, beginning with changing his date of birth on his birth certificate from 1948 to 1938 simply by scratching the number. Sheehan thinks Abagnale Jr.’s success stems from his gumption and ability to manipulate people — and that it’s possible to commit similar frauds today.

If someone were to alter a paper birth certificate like Abagnale Jr. did and then use it to convince CRA that its records were wrong, that could lead to other organizations buying into the fraud. “If you get anyone with any validity to buy into that and make that change others will follow and it’s unlikely to be questioned,” he says.

It might even be easier today to fake paper documents because of increased identity protection regulations. Sheehan says, “I can’t call the Ontario government agency that handles birth certificates and say ‘Look I’ve got this certificate number X, is that right?’ Because they won’t talk to you. The rules we’ve put in place to protect identities also protect the fraud.”

Abagnale Jr.’s identity frauds become more challenging through the film: aside from the FAA license, he fakes a Harvard medical degree and a University of California Berkeley law degree. Now, with digital systems in place, it would be harder to fake similar certifications, but not impossible.

Like Abagnale Jr., today’s fraud artists still use a combination of seemingly real information and charm to dupe their victims. Called social engineering fraud, criminals manipulate social norms to exploit a person’s trust, explains Interpol.

“It would be prudent for every employer to check your references to make sure this is valid,” says Sheehan, “but if you can get somebody to accept that certificate rather than contact the institution, you’re in.”

While filming the movie, DiCaprio met the real Abagnale Jr. to see if he could figure out why so many people trusted him.

“He’s somebody that for whatever reason puts people at ease. He makes you completely comfortable with him. And he seems as innocent as a schoolteacher,” DiCaprio told journalists when the film premiered in 2002.

How does it rate?

In terms of the accuracy of the frauds, Sheehan gives Catch Me If You Can an 8/10. “The most far-fetched thing would be the decal coming off the airplanes and being put on cheques. In this case it’s a little different than most movies because you have someone who got caught doing what he did, he says he did it and there’s proof. I think it’s a fairly valid story.”

In the end, Hanratty catches Abagnale Jr., who is sentenced to 12 years in maximum security prison — though Hanratty manages to get him out early by offering him a job in the cheque fraud investigation unit at the FBI. In reality, after he was caught by Shea, Abagnale Jr. helped the FBI catch other fraudsters, and eventually became a successful security consultant. His crimes never succeeded in reuniting his parents.

Sarah Cunningham-Scharf