Mar 03 2006
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.
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 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.
“I take it one of these is fake.”
“And I take it you did this on a PC?”
“A Mac actually.”
“Whatever. Do you know if it will fool a bank?”
“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.