Put a couple beers in me and one of the stories I’ll always retell is the onea 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 ….
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.
to be continued….