Mar 03 2006

Desktop Forgery

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Put a couple beers in me and one of the stories I’ll always retell is the one about how I forged a check and achieved instant fame and temporary fortune with a slip of the pen … err desktop publishing system.
This dip into the past — late 80s in fact — was brought to you by an email — one of a type I receive every so often, asking me: “How do you forge a check?”
I am not a pen-and-ink man, no master at clever forgery like the expert in The Great Escape who equips all the Allied prisoners with work permits and travel documents to help them through the Nazi system. No, I was just a fortunate criminal-manque who happened upon a good story.
It started after the 1988 SIGGRAPH (a convention of graphics geeks) at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Sam Whitmore, then the editor-in-chief of PC Week, came upstairs to the newsrooms from seeing a demonstration of the very first color photocopier, a Canon, and told the funny story of how the sales engineer asked the audience in the Canon booth if they had anything wanted to copy, thinking, perhaps, that someone would dredge a picture of the wife and kids out of the billfold. Sam produced a twenty dollar bill, which attracted some giggles. The demonstrator said, “We’re not supposed to do that, but what the heck.” and proceeded to run off a copy of the greenback in all its glory on the sucky waxy paper those first copiers used.
Skip forward a year to me as a green reporter at Forbes, where success and job security meant delivering a cover story every year. The editors were merciless. Every story idea pitched had to aspire to be a cover and I was running short on ideas. One day, short on ideas save for the usual one-page company profiles of mundane Route 128 mainframe software vendors, I was pushed to the edge by my editor, Bill Baldwin (now the EIC of Forbes) to come up with something big, something huge, something about technology that could carry a cover.
Desktop forgery, I said, Shamelessly ripping of Sam’s insight that color copiers were a counterfeiter’s best friend.
That got Baldwin’s attention. We talked over the idea, and it turned into a challenge, a double-dare, a “I-bet-you-can’t-forge-your-paycheck” kind of bet. I went for it, and for the next two months, my life was all about deceit.
First I had to do some reporting. Could I find a case that forgers were using desktop publishing systems (which were pretty crude by today’s standards) to forge checks and other documents? The Secret Service was no help whatsoever. In fact, one could say they were … secretive. FBI, same stonewall. No one was talking. So I sicced the Forbes research department onto the court dockets, looking for cases where someone was bagged using a PC to alter a document.
No luck. It was apparent there was no story, and where there is no story, a good reporter invents a story.
I decided to forge my paycheck.
This was before direct deposit, so every two weeks I got a check for about $2,000 which I detacked from the stub, walked to an ATM, and deposited. I decided to turn that check into a $20,000 check. I told Baldwin the plan, and he said, “If it clears, then you have a story.”
Okay, I was working on a lame Epson Equity II 8086 machine with a 286 accelerator card and a LIM Spec memory card that brought the RAM up to a whopping 4 megs. There was no way I was going to attach a scanner and laser printer to that rowboat anchor, so I had to seek out the weapon of choice for real graphics work. That meant ….
A Mac.
Having no Mac, and being allergic to them after four years working for the “News weekly of IBM Standard Computing” I went to Harvard Square, found a place that rented time on a Mac in a room full of Macs and started running my paycheck through a flat bed scanner. There being no privacy in the computer store, anybody sitting near me could see I was messing around with a financial instrument and attempting to change the numbers. Eventually, inevitably, the clerk came over.
“Hey man. You’ve got to leave. You can’t be doing that here.”
I went into my journalistic integrity speech, trying hard not to give away my story idea in the process. None of it worked, I was bounced, and back on the Red Line to Boston with a low res printout and a serious feeling of defeat.
Then I met Frank Abagnale. The guy Leonardo Di Caprio played in Catch Me if You Can.
I found Abagnale through a few quotes he gave to some trade journal for the banking industry on check forgery. Seeing that he had a criminal record I decided I had to find him and find out what the real story was in check forging. He was running a consulting firm — essentially a “It Takes a Thief” play — scaring banks by telling them how people like himself had bilked them out of bazillions.Frank AbegnaleI got him on the phone and right away he was one of those magic interviews that every reporter dreams of. Funny, well-spoken, a natural storyteller. His key point in how to run a check scam was that it wasn’t about technical perfection — indeed he claimed he could convince a bank teller to cash a dinner napkin if he needed to — but about confidence, the emphasis being on the “con” in confidence. It was all about the story behind the scam, not the instrument of forgery.Abegnale talked for hours — we did the interview over three sessions. First he went into the technical details of bank routing codes and MICR encoding, the weird jetson font at the bottom of every check that tells the bank clearing scanner where to route the check for clearing through the Federal Reserve System.

What happens to a check is pretty fascinating. After it is deposited in a bank it is bundled up with all the rest of that bank’s checks and run through a MICR scanner. The MICR scanner routes the checks into piles which are then put on airplanes and sent to the appropriate Federal Reserve regional clearing system. Abagnale figured out that the first thing for a forger’s success is time — playing the time it takes for a bogus check to be deposited to the time it is flagged and confirmed as a forgery as time to make his getaway.

Abagnale walked me through a scam. He would hit a city, say Boston, and open literally 50 bank accounts at different banks using fake ID. He would open each account with $100 and let it sit there for a while.

Then he would go to the airport (anyone who has seen the movie knows how important airport scams were to Abagnale) and get ready to take a flight on, say Delta. He would buy a ticket, for cash, for a flight scheduled to leave in a couple hours. He’d catch a cup of coffee, and then buy a ticken on another airline to the same destination.

He’s return to the Delta counter, show them the new ticket, and demand his money back. The ticket agents would offer to give him a credit for another ticket, but he would flip out and demand the cash because he was travelling and needed the money, etc. etc.

Inevitably, after making enough of a stink, Abagnale would be given a Delta corporate check, cut right on the spot, and that was all he needed. He’d then do the pen and ink thing on check, or safety paper, buying a ream from a paper supplier claiming it was for printing certificates of merit for his Cub Scout Troop.

Just like in the movies, Abagnale would get logos for the company check and just transfer them onto the safety paper, using check writing equipment he picked up at bankruptcy auctions to make them look semi-official. Abagnale’s great insight was that no teller in the world knew what a real Delta airlines check looked like.

He would cut 50 checks for $5000 and deposit them into all of his pre-opened accounts, come back the next day, and convince the teller that he was moving out of town and needed cash, not a check, to empty his balance, taking advantage of Congresses’ decision to make it easier for you and me to get our money out of the banks. Timing was everything and Abagnale was a master of knowing when the bank would acknowledge his deposit, unaware that the Delta check was on its way to the Honolulu Federal Reserve instead of Atlanta. It took weeks before someone at Delta had the offending piece of paper on their desk and picked up the phone to call the FBI.

One after another, Abagnale would visit the banks and con the tellers into giving him cash.

And then it was catch me if you can.

I told Frank he should write a book.

He did.

Frank Abagnale inspired me to keep pushing the limit on my forgery story. My editor was getting impatient and asking for some proof that there was a digital forgery issue, and I needed to keep writing the standard Forbes fare of one page company stories and other projects while working on the forgery piece on the side. I knew that unless I could come up with some great criminal cases — “Forger Found in Apartment with Smoking Laser Printer” — I’d have to demo-or-die as it were and cut my own check.

I flew out to the west coast to talk with some desktop publishing and digital imaging experts and analysts, looking at the state of the art (circa 1989) in scanners, image manipulation software and laser printers. All the great stuff was Mac based, and having just left PC Week, the trade paper devoted to the IBM platform, that was going to be a tough transition for me in terms of technical skills. I had no Mac, wanted no Mac, and could not for the life of me understand how people could function without a two buttoned mouse. Whatever. Forbes wasn’t going to buy me a Mac with a scanner and high end laser printer and going to the local Kinkos to rent time on their machines was going to get me arrested, so I found a Rent-A-Mac service and had $7000 worth of Cupertino’s finest iron delivered to my Back Bay apartment, setting it all up on the dining room table.

For a week I messed around with the set-up, getting comfortable with the scanner, Quark Express, and Adobe PhotoShop. Thankfully my wife, Daphne, is a very good graphics artist and the Mac’s interface appealed to some lobe of her brain, so she took over and started getting really down and dirty with the software, showing me how to trick the printer and scanner into doing what was necessary.

We started with my Forbes expense check and were able to get a clean black and white scan of all the printing. We took that “skeleton” and magnified in on the check amount — the numerals as well as the spelled out figure. My wife’s intuition was to use the digits already printed on the check and copy and paste them — rather than trying to handcraft a forgery. Basically, we used the check to forge itself, moving a zero and replicating it, taking a $5,000 check and making it a 50,000 check by simply copying and inserting a zero in front of the comma.

The actual on-the-glass image manipulation was very easy. Now we needed to print the thing and that got us stumped on paper. Forbes was using a New York-based commercial bank to issue its employee expense checks and the paper was light green with a wavy pattern to foil people like me. Hah.

A little digression into security paper. Currency is the best example of what is known as intaglio printing, fine detailed patterns that break up when counterfeiters try to duplicate them the old way with printing plates. I could further digress for an hour about American currency — at the time one of the less secure bill designs in the world compared to countries like Switzerland that were getting out on the edge with holograms, watermarks, and embedded metal security strips. But checks were, and still are, absolutely insecure pieces of paper when compared to currency. This was going to make my job that much easier.

I went exploring for sources of security or “safety paper” and started in with the yellow pages (remember the yellow pages? The Google of the paper era?) I found a paper supplier in Somerville, MA and remembered Abagnale’s advice to go looking for paper to print award certificates for the bowling league or cub scout troop. I got on the phone, asked if I could get a ream of green safety paper, and ten minutes later was on the MBTA on my way to the supplier.

It was a true, no-questions asked supplier. I went into the waiting room, asked to see the safety paper sample book, turned to the green examples, and bingo, there was the exact same paper that Forbes’ bank used to print the paychecks. I was in.

At home Daphne and I loaded up the laser printer and started printing samples. The first efforts were excellent, but she was a perfectionist and insured the printing was perfectly aligned with the safety pattery.

Then we had to cut them to size. Abagnale had said to focus on the perforation points where a person would detach a corporate check from the register — the part that tells the receipient what their deductions were, etc. Using a rule and a sewing pattern wheel — a little metal wheel on a wooden handle for marking perforations, we came up with a very good looking check. We cut two sets. One with an increased amount, a fake name, and an altered routing code. Another an exact copy of the original for the purpose of comparison.
I called New York and told my editor I was ready. He told me to come down the next day on the Delta Shuttle with the original and the forgery and present it at the fortnightly Forbes story meeting, a hallowed affair when all the editors and writers got in the big Forbes conference room — the one with the pictures of Malcolm Forbes and the models of the Forbes jet and the Forbes yacht the Highlander in it — and discussed the line up for the next issue.

The Forbes story meeting started and ended at the head of the table with Jim Michaels, the genius who made Forbes the magazine it was from the 1960s to the 1990s. This man was god to me.

Jim Michaels

Jim started his meetings with a quick post-game analysis of the issue just published and the outlook for the next and then would turn to his left and in order of precedence on the masthead, work down from the Executive Editor to the Managing Editor to the Assistant Managing Editors, each quickly firing off their plan for the next two weeks. Then the discussion went to the writers. The rules were pretty simple. If you had nothing to contribute and were working on a big project like a cover story, you “passed.” Pass too many times and you would get zinged by Michaels. The story meeting was not a podium to show off how clever you were. The emphasis was on brevity, e.g.: “I want to prove that Donald Trump is bankrupt.” If there was interest in that headline, then Michaels or one of the other editors would ask a question or issue a challenge, but the object of the meeting was to get a lineup of stories, not to write them.

I was a stranger to most of these meetings, being Forbes’ first work-at-home writer, and the geek writer as I covered the tech beat and wrote about stuff like the CCITT and LU 6.2. When it got to be my turn I simply held up the two checks. The real one and the forgery — the set with the same name and dollar amount — and handed them to the person to my right. The checks made their way to the head of the table. Michaels and my editor, Bill Baldwin put them flat in front of them and stared, both using their reading glasses to get up close. Michaels looked up.

Bill Baldwin

“I take it one of these is fake.”

“Yes.”

“And I take it you did this on a PC?”

“A Mac actually.”

“Whatever. Do you know if it will fool a bank?”

“Not yet.”

“If it clears then it’s the cover story. Go deposit it and then we’ll talk.”

To finish off my account of how to forge your paycheck, increase your net worth, make the cover of a national business magazine and have an interesting discussion with the federal authorities ….

I left off with my editor, Bill Baldwin at Forbes, challenging me to deposit a check I forged on a Mac. If it cleared then it was a story. If it didn’t clear … We really didn’t think through those consequences.

So, I took the bogus piece of paper, walked it across Huntington Ave. to the ATM in the plaza of Boston’s Prudential Center, sealed it in a deposit envelope, and sent it on its merry way, feeling a little guilty that I hadn’t taken the full criminal route, ala Frank Abagnale (Mr. Catch Me If You Can) and tried to persuade a real human bank teller to cash it. Whatever. It was done, and with some guilt I went back to my home office and started reporting another story on mainframe software vendors or some far less exciting topic.

Two days later I started calling the bank’s automated balance line (this was pre-online banking) to see if my balance had ballooned. On the third day I was a much wealthier man. I phoned Baldwin.

“It cleared,” I told him. “My balance is way up.”

There was some silence. Neither one of us knew what to do next. Finally Baldwin suggested I catch the shuttle to NYC and be prepared to return the money to accounting.

The next day I was waiting outside of the Forbes accounting department, personal check in hand, ready to tell the poor treasurer that I had committed a felony in the interest of service journalism.

“You did what?”

“Well, I was researching a story about digital forgery and I forged a Forbes check and deposited it and …”

“Oh my god.” He picked up the phone and called Baldwin to confirm my misdeed. I was dismissed. I went back to Baldwin’s office.

“I guess we should have told accounting first. Their on the phone with the bank now.” Forbes’ bank was not pleased. In fact, they were very unhappy. Their chief of security was not having a good day. The check was still in the system somewhere, flying to Honolulu, and they had no idea how to deal with a customer who ripped themselves off.

I was sent back to Boston with orders to forge onwards (sorry) with the completition of the story. The Forbes research department went into overdrive, searching court dockets for more evidence of digital forgery, a photographer was hired to come into my home office and chronicle the process of cutting the check. The Mac and scanner and laser printer were re-rented. The photographers came and wreaked havoc on my small apartment. My wife made it into the photos.

The story was published in the fall, right before Comdex, and the cover was a picture of the actual check, with my name and a bogus address on it, with the headline “This Check is a Fake.” My ego was most gratified to see my name on the cover — Forbes didn’t publish reporter’s names on the cover, but there it was. The story spanned six pages and had a sequence of step-by-step photos on how I pulled off the hack.

I got on an airplane and went to Comdex just as the issue hit the newsstands. All hell broke loose. The Forbes PR department started booking me on television and radio shows. All of my PC Week buddies were very congratulatory. Even the cool guys at Mondo 2000 were impressed by the hack.

When I returned to New York, Tennyson Schad, Forbes’ attorney, asked me if I had a problem speaking with the New York office of the FBI. They had made an inquiry through him to discuss the prank, so off we went, Baldwin, Schad, and I, to a little out of the way restaurant near New York City Hall. I didn’t know what to expect. A grilling?

A couple plastic evidence bags were produced. Inside were some checks. I was asked if I knew how they were produced.

“Looks like dye-sublimation transfer technology,” I said. It appeared I wasn’t the first person to discover the utility of desktop publishing for desktop forgery. A lot of the bogus checks the FBI were holding were drawn on German banks. Made sense, the Germans and Swiss are the masters of printing technology, and someone was doing a pretty good job (but not as good as mine) of cutting bogus paper.

It was a pleasant lunch. I was a little pissed the FBI hadn’t been forthcoming when I was reporting the piece, but it was a nice coda to a long story.

Upshot of the whole affar — Nova came to my house on Cape Cod and filmed me forging a check in a special on digital risks. RiskDigests — the USENET group that detailed computer crime picked it up. The National Association of Science Writers awarded me the story of the year, and I picked up two other big prizes for the piece. Nothing I’ve written before or since has received so much attention.

To this day, maybe once every other month, I get an email from someone who has found the story and has questions, many questions, about inks and paper and passing techniques.

They all go unanswered.

The best part of the whole story though, in the end, was seeing Frank Abagnale make the big screen. He is, without question, the most colorful person I’ve ever interviewed.

The original article is hereĀ desktopforgery

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Desktop Forgery”

  1. Mary McConnell Bowson 08 Nov 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Hello David,

    Trolling Linkedin on this grey evening on the North Shore (Marblehead)…a sign of the daunting 2009 numbers before me. Anyway, one person lead me to another and another and on to your blog!. The header of your blog looks like Pleasant Bay right by the sailing camp I worked at in college in Chatham.

    Anyway, love the story – can’t believe I’ve never heard it second hand from anyone! I imagine you are aware that Frank Abignale was featured in Novell’s corporate marketing campaign several years back?

    Love an excuse to get in the Mini and drive South for lunch and hear about life at Lenovo, on Cape Cod and the Olympics! Let me know if you have a window closer to the holidays…

    Best,
    Mary
    mmcconnellbows@gmail.com / 781-639-8991

  2. Henk Portieron 24 May 2009 at 11:16 am

    Hi Dave, I was just in Cotuit fishing Cotuit Bay this past M-Th. Caught a lot of blues, and some small stripers.

    I was remembering the big? Reel-time get together at your house.

    I never realized that we had such a commonality of backgrounds …

    Would love to get together with you and fish or talk about the gardens and living down in Cotuit

    Give a shout back when you can, datarecoveryinc@gmail.com

    Thanks 781-449-9990

  3. […] Desktop Forgery […]

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