The transformation of Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Charleston Mercury Logo

By Peg Eastman

At the suggestion of late night television host Johnny Carson, Frank Abagnale, Jr., published “Catch Me If You Can,” a fictionalized account of his youthful exploits as a forger, imposter and escape artist. The book was an immediate success and quickly became a #1 New York Times bestseller.

What is less widely known is that the ghost writer was tasked with writing a good story; he interviewed Abagnale only four times and took such literary license that Abagnale insisted upon a disclaimer. The movie rights were sold when the book came out in 1980. Twenty years later Stephen Spielberg acquired those rights and produced the film version of “Catch Me If You Can.” In 2009 the award-winning musical of the same name made its debut; it is currently appearing in theatres from Connecticut to California.

“Catch Me If You Can” is delightful entertainment. It is not an autobiographical documentary. The real-life story is far better — redemption of a youthful offender who has since become an international crime fighter. Speilberg recognized this and later told Abagnale that he made the film not to celebrate his misguided teenaged crime spree, but because of the man he became afterwards.

In some ways, the story is not unusual. Young Abagnale was the product of a broken home. Like most adolescents, he got caught up in the moment and didn’t think about consequences.

He grew up in Bronxville, New York, and attended Catholic schools. When his parents divorced, he was unable to cope with making the decision of whom to live with and ran away to New York City, never to see or talk to his beloved father again. He quickly discovered that he could not survive on the odd jobs available to a sixteen year old.

Self assured and looking far older than his years, he began writing bogus checks to support an upscale lifestyle. It may have been fun masquerading as an airline pilot, an attorney and a pediatrician, but his life on the run was also lonely and isolated. He cried himself to sleep many nights and missed out on teenage rites of passage into manhood. The police finally caught him in France, where he served six months in a horrific, antiquated prison. He served another six in Sweden before being deported to the United States, where he was sentenced for 12 years as a youthful offender.

Because of the audacity and sophistication of his crimes, Joseph Shea, the FBI agent who relentlessly pursued him, thought Abagnale was in his late 20s. He also recognized his inherent parochial school morality and persuaded the FBI to let him work undercover without pay to investigate crimes committed by fraud and scam artists. Abagnale accepted the conditions and was paroled for the remainder of his sentence. It took time to gain acceptance from FBI agents, but once his probation was completed, Abagnale was asked to continue working as an FBI consultant. The FBI recovered $2 million of the stolen fortune, and Abagnale later paid back the remaining $500,000. Shea became his mentor and filled the role of a second father; their friendship continued until Shea’s death in 2005.

Abagnale was working undercover in Texas when he met Kelly, his future wife, and broke strict secrecy protocol to tell her about his past. She married him after his release.

Abagnale is not proud what he did as a teenager and hates to see it glorified. He attributes his transformation to the love of his family and a forgiving God. He is justly proud of the fact that he has “been married to my one and only wife for 36 years, and brought three successful sons into the world, one of whom is an FBI agent.” His conscience has not let him annul his past conduct, and he has refused pardons from three presidents.

Today Abagnale is one of the world's most respected authorities on forgery, embezzlement and secure documents and has consulted with hundreds of financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies worldwide. He is a popular speaker. Many of his appearances have been to benefit others. His message is entertaining but also contains a moral message. He reminds us that a family is life’s most valuable possession.

Abagnale brings a strong message to the younger generation: Even if you make mistakes, you can turn your life around and become a valuable member of society. He cautions about making wrong decisions because the repercussions can last a lifetime. They should realize that college admissions officers and potential employers check an applicant’s social media footprint, and tweeting can be dangerous.

He is deeply concerned about the ethical issues facing our nation today and the vulnerabilities made by advances in technology. His advice about what ordinary citizens can do to protect their identity: Don’t put your birthday on Facebook and keep your “likes” to yourself. Every “like” or “don’t like” may indicate sexual orientation, ethnic background or voting record to giant data brokers who sell personal information to banks, retailers and other companies. With the new technology, birth dates and places make a person 98 percent vulnerable, particularly smartphone users who can be located within a couple of feet via satellite.

Another tip: Do not to post a portrait-style photo on social media sites; post only photos in a group or a profile because a full-faced image could be used for identity theft using facial recognition software. He recommends a micro cut shredder to destroy personal data and thinks credit cards are the safest form of payment because by law there is no liability; the money at risk belongs to the credit card company. On a personal note, the Abagnales moved to Charleston in 2009 and have become an integral part of the community. Kelly has a business on George Street and Frank commutes to his consulting firm in Washington. He remains a popular lecturer and has participated in local fundraisers and other civic events. He is delightful to meet. Catch up with him if you can.

Those interested in seeking further information on protecting business and personal assets may contact