A blast from my Forbes past

I couldn’t resist feeling nostalgic for the golden era at Forbes in the late 80s when  Jim Michael and Bill Baldwin and Laury Minard were at their peak and the plague of of the Internet hadn’t yet trashed the grand old magazines of the past.


This was my first home run, my second cover story for Forbes, one born from an offhand discussion with Sam Whitmore, my old PC Week boss, who returned from a demo of the first color copier at SIGGRAPH with a hysterical story about trying to persuade the Canon rep to scan a $20 bill.

I’ve told the back story of how the article was written, but after some searching, found a copy of the original and scanned it. Forbes never put its archive online and I figured screw it — I asked their reprint department for permission to post this and they wanted a gazillion dollars. So, in the spirit of information wants to be free, here is how I forged my paycheck on a Mac. PDF below.


The tyranny of testing

No one appreciates being typecast, but it’s part of the program to get tested, ranked, and labeled with some convenient label. The one that has irritated me for the past ten years — ever since the new HR lady at Forbes thought it would be a good idea — was the Myers-Briggs type indicator test. This was a topic of some casual conversations at McKinsey, where everyone is an utter over-achiever and accustomed to accumulating the kind of labels mere mortals gasp at: Rhodes Scholar, Baker Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, even a Nobel prize winner or two.

The idea of identifying myself in a conversation as a ENTP is depressing and reduces me to a four-letter acronym, which, to some, is as revealing as saying I’m a Taurus and about as relevant.

Anyway, I digress. What got me on this screed was a recent radio show on Open Source, Christopher Lydon’s sometimes awesome evening NPR show, on the last art of cursive handwriting. My cursive simple sucks, wasted in the third grade at Perley Elementary School in Georgetown, Massachusetts when I completely failed the Palmer Method, was diagnosed as being a “false left-handed person” and then told to write with my right.

That didn’t work and hence I embarked on a lifetime as a writer thanks to my father giving me a typewriter at the age of nine so people could understand my written utterances.

Lydon’s guests included some calligraphy freaks, one of whom mentioned the European practice of using a handwriting analyst to examine a job candidate’s writing sample and deliver a report on that candidate’s applicability for the job. I ran into this practice when I worked in Zurich and got to know a fairly prominent head hunter for the banking industry. He thought it was second nature to request a writing sample and send it off for analysis — it made as much sense to me as asking an astrologer to cook up a horoscope and about as accurate. Granted, I can see a handwriting expert taking the stand to identify if a signature was genuine, but to predict behavior? If I had passed the Palmer Method, and wrote a perfect, controlled cursive script, then in theory I would be about as transparent as a human version of Courier 12.
The Wikipedia confirms my suspicion that handwriting analysis — aka Graphology — is about as relevant to predicting an individiual’s performance as the Myers-Briggs, only creepier.

My wife, who is expert in forging my signature, says she only has to rapidly write the words “Del Chunk” to achieve a reasonable facsimile.

Desktop Forgery – don’t try this at home

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. They’re on the phone with the bank now.” Forbes’ bank was not pleased. They were very unhappy. Their chief of security was not having a good day. And I was told I had committed a serious felony. 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 took out my checkbook and wrote a check back to Forbes.
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 FBI’s site even gives me credit. 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.

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