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 be continued