Continued from part one:
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.
I 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.
Next — how I forged a check and got in trouble and got on the cover of Forbes.