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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Portrait of the Con Artist as a Young Man

Frank Abagnale's teen crimes landed him in prison. Now a successful security expert, he's wary of attention from a film about his youth.

December 06, 2002|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

Frank Abagnale, who is about to become America's most popular con man, is standing in a darkened auditorium in downtown L.A., scaring the bejesus out of a couple hundred business people. He has been talking in a calm, quick, flawless cadence for more than two hours, flashing his 140 slide projections on a big screen, listing every manner of fraud that could befall these men and women: forgery, embezzlement, bogus checks, identity theft.

As the litany of scam rises, Abagnale's pace accelerates even more. He recites the con man's inner monologues. He acts out dialogues between criminal and victim. He tells the audience which brands of tape, nail polish, laser printer and paper stock crooks employ to forge or alter checks, what Web sites they use to steal someone's identity, how they look over a shopper's shoulder to grab critical data, how they take advantage of human naivete.

This is powerful stuff not merely because of who Abagnale is -- a 54-year-old consultant who pulls in $15,000 per lecture -- but because of who he was: a notoriously creative teenage check forger and impersonator in the 1960s.

Soured by his parents' divorce, Abagnale ran away from home in New York at 16 and turned his considerable intellect to passing, by his estimate, $2.5 million worth of bad checks over the next five years. He was motivated at first by the raw craving for money to spend on girls. As he improved the craft of creating counterfeit checks, he assumed a series of trustworthy identities in order to cash them and evade capture: airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, professor. By the time he was 21, the FBI had him. He spent four years behind bars, then began lending his expertise to vulnerable businesses. He wrote one book in 1980 about his cons and another last year about how to avoid being conned.

Abagnale enjoys a high profile within business and law enforcement communities, including the FBI Academy, where he frequently lectures on white-collar crime. But beginning Christmas Day, the young Frank will overtake middle-aged Frank as Leonardo DiCaprio becomes Abagnale in "Catch Me If You Can," director Steven Spielberg's comedic dramatization of Abagnale's teen spree.

The young Frank would have relished the attention -- the thrill of being the latest non-celebrity lionized by a Hollywood biopic, joining folks like Erin Brockovich, David Helfgott ("Shine"), John Nash ("A Beautiful Mind") and Jim Morris ("The Rookie").

The middle-aged Frank -- the one who tells his audiences that fraud has skyrocketed because of society's ethical deterioration -- has been wary of the buzz. In September, before he saw a cut of the film, he was so worried studio promotion would glorify his crimes James Bond-style that he disavowed young Frank on his business Web site. ("I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of.")

He now praises Spielberg and DiCaprio for capturing the sadness and moral quandaries of his youth as well as the manic excitement. Yet he's still bothered by the idea that he'll soon be recognized any time he hands his credit card to a hotel reservation clerk. He settled long ago in Tulsa, Okla., where he's been married for 26 years and is the father of three sons in college. "I like to wash my cars in front of my home on weekends," he says in a restrained tone that has little trace of New York. "I like to garden. I like doing what I do for a living."

With no financial stake in the picture, he's told Spielberg's DreamWorks to limit his media exposure, but it figures to be a losing battle. There's an irresistible conflict between the boy and man, and on this day, in Abagnale's speech inside L.A.'s exclusive Jonathan Club, that tension resonates with each of his pronouncements.

" Today, 60% of all transactions are still paid by check. The check is king....What many Americans don't understand is that many of those checks are no good."

He was 14 when Mom moved out in 1964. He stayed with Dad, an affluent Manhattan stationery store owner, figuring his father needed his help. Around the same age he became girl crazy and began putting thousands of dollars on his unsuspecting father's credit card. Three thousand dollars later, he wound up for a time in a school for wayward boys. At 16 he moved out on his own, found that minimum-wage work was insufficient for his social life, and figured he could get paid more if he lied about his age.

He was prematurely gray, so when he added 10 years to his resume, it worked. But money was still too tight, and he was routinely cashing checks without money in his account, figuring it didn't matter because he was a kid. Then one day he noticed a group of airline pilots and thought how easy it would be to cash bad checks in pilot's garb.

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