Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 155 / AUGUST 1993 / PAGE 60

Don't try this at home. (counterfeiting with computer technology)
by Lamont Wood

Sure, you're an honest person. Basically. But you've applied for a nice job, and they want a letter of recommendation from, say, your college department head. But all they're likely to get from that professor is a damning letter describing what you were caught doing while the lab burned. In fact, you have a letter like that sitting in front of you now, written on university letterhead and signed by your professor.

Desperately, you cast about for a solution to your dilemma--and note that your computer has a color scanner and a laser printer attached to it. So you could just scan in the letterhead and the signature, and write your own letter.

Why not? Who would know?

Forging Ahead

Welcome to desktop forgery. It's a new scam many observers expect to snowball as technology makes documents easier and easier to reproduce, perhaps ending the concept of face value. And perhaps also changing the way some of our paperbound institutions function.

Or perhaps not--because we still have those first two questions:

Why not? Because it would be wrong (to paraphrase Richard Nixon).

Who would know? The people who catch you. Because you're very likely to get caught.

For instance, the printout from your laser printer could be traced back to you--although it's difficult to make such a trace, acknowledges Mike Noblett, chief of the Document Analysis Research and Training Unit at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. Fans of detective novels know all about how the FBI collects print samples from typewriter brands and how every manual typewriter has distinctive wear patterns that can identify its output. Of course, hardly anybody uses such machines anymore, but the rollers and paper grabbers of laser printers do leave distinctive marks that can at least give away what brand of printer was used, Noblett notes. And scratches on the toner drum (if there are any) can be distinctive enough to identify an individual machine.

So you resolve to get a new toner cartridge just for this scam. But after that, you run into a problem--the letterhead you want to copy includes an embossed silver logo. Your laser printer can't emboss anything, and no metallic (silver, gold, or bronze) toner is available for laser printers, even if your scanner could pick up those reflective colors. That's why you see more and more letterheads printed with embossed metallic backgrounds, explains William Flynn, a document examiner and president of Affiliated Forensic Laboratories in Phoenix, Arizona.

Anyway, you ponder, you also have to fake a letterhead envelope, and that's even harder. Indeed, sources say that beginners often give themselves away by overlooking the need for a convincing envelope. Or by leaving their fingerprints all over it, even when the document inside is surgically clean.

Ah, you think, but what if I fax the letter? Everyone faxes everything these days. All faxes are black-and-white, so the original color won't matter. And no envelope is needed.

So you whip out something convincing and head down to the copy shop to use the fax machine. There are other people there, too, nervously making photocopies of medical records, buying snapshot film, fingering check paper, and making furtive glances at the color copier.

Are they up to something, too? you wonder. No, they probably aren't. But maybe it's just as well that you wonder.

Paper Hanging

Those people fingering the check paper in the copy shop can give the hives to someone like Susan Morton, senior forensic document examiner with the U.S. Postal Service in San Francisco. While laser printers were once considered unsuitable for printing checks, today even large payroll firms use them, leaving bank tellers accustomed to the sight of laser-produced checks, she mourns.

The result is that she has seen gangs traveling the country packing computers, scanners, and laser printers. Arriving in a town, their first move is to rob a mailbox to acquire some checks that were mailed to, say, the local utility company. They will copy the account and routing code off some citizen's check and decide what branch bank that person probably uses. Then they forge a large corporate or government check to that person, using information from other checks they found in the mail. Packing a forged ID, a gang member will then go to a branch across town where presumably nobody knows the citizen and deposit part of that forged check. The check may be for $5,000, of which the forger takes $2,000 as cash, smiles, and leaves.

The bank may admit it's been scammed, or it may seek to blame the innocent citizen. "Some banks are nice and cooperative, and some can hassle you for years," Morton notes.

One check-forging gang was chased across Texas for about six months in the late 1980s, recalls Robert Ansley, corporate security manager for Dell Computer in Austin, Texas, then with the Austin police department. Armed with a stolen Macintosh and an ID maker stolen from a highway patrol substation, they passed more than $100,000 in bogus checks in Austin alone. But instead of hiring street people to go into the bank, as other gangs have done, they used the same woman over and over, and her description was sent to every check-cashing outlet in the city. A teller spotter her, she fled--and it turns out the gang had overlooked the detail of forging a license plate for their getaway pickup truck.

Sources say other gangs have used laser printers to forge security ID badges to get into office buildings and steal the computers, nodding to the friendly security guard at the front desk while trudging out with their arms full. But they usually find that fencing computers is harder than stealing them and get caught.

Knowing this, perhaps you've decided that forging is not the career for you. And anyway, you're just one faxed letter away from a good job. So you fax your forged letter from the copy shop. Your prospective employer gets it. And sees from the ID line that fax machines insert at the top of each page that the letter came from the copy shop down the street, instead of that university three states away.

The fax, and your job, go straight into the trash can.


You're not alone in getting caught. Think back to the crowd at the copy shop. That medical professional was creating a new page for a patient file with some dates changed to make himself look like a genius instead of a quack. But at the malpractice trial it comes out that the page in question has one set of staple holes and all the surrounding pages have seven. The person buying the snapshot film was trying to back up a burglary insurance claim, but the insurance investigator checks the production code on the back of the film and finds it was made some weeks after the photographed jewelry was supposedly stolen. The ones fingering the check paper get caught as described. As for that furtive guy at the color copier--he's doomed.

So, to return to our earlier question, does all this new technology mean our paperbound civilization is in danger of coming apart at the seams?

Apparently not. "We have not seen an increase in the amount of document fraud per se," says Noblett. "We have seen more and more computer-generated documents, but the total amount [of document fraud] is about the same. Computers have also made things easier for counterfeiters, but we don't see any more counterfeiters than before."

So perhaps people have remained basically honest-although a few safeguards may be in order. "We have been urging corporations to move forward with EDI [paperless invoicing, ordering, and so forth, using Electronic Data Interchange] for more and more of their business transactions and avoid paper, since it will become so vulnerable," says Donn Parker, computer crime expert with SRI International in Menlo Park, California.

Read This or Go to Jail

Yes, modern color copiers make reproductions of paper money so convincing that they can often readily be passed, notes Gayle Moore, special agent with the public affairs office of the U.S. Secret Service in Washington, DC. And making such copies can get you sent to prison for 15 years, fined $5,000, or both, she adds. And you're likely to get caught because, while the reproductions may look good, they don't feel anything like paper money--they are far slicker.

Meanwhile, new anticopying measures are being added to U.S. currency. Microprinting is being added around the outside of the portraits, which copiers will pick up only as fuzzy lines--which is all it looks like except under high magnification. And plastic strips are being added inside the paper itself--a copier won't reproduce them, but they will appear when you hold a genuine bill up to the light.

Meanwhile, Canon USA is said to be adding anticounterfeiting technology to its color copiers. A Canon spokesman declined to discuss the matter, but other sources say the technology can sense the graphical patterns of U.S. currency in whatever it scans. If currency is detected, the unit will spit out a black page.

But serious counterfeiters are likely to eschew color copiers anyway, preferring traditional methods, Moore notes. While a $47,000 color copier might give you seven copies a minute, you can churn out millions of bogus dollars a day with an offset press. So color copiers are mostly used for low-volume opportunistic counterfeiting, she explains. In 1991, the Secret Service busted 66 traditional counterfeiting operations, while seizing 52 office machines that had been used for counterfeiting. But whichever method is used, there is usually some paper trail connecting the perpetrator to the machinery, she notes.

Meanwhile, truly sophisticated counterfeiters are often too smart to waste their time producing money, preferring negotiable instruments like stocks and bonds. Desktop forgery hasn't been much of a factor in this field, says Jack R. Calvert, director of the National Forensic Laboratory of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service in Chicago, since copiers still don't have the resolution to defeat the safeguards of the safety paper such bonds are printed on. Safety paper can have pantagrams (continuous background patterns) that appear only when a photocopy is made, ink that appears only under special lights, or watermarks no copier can duplicate.

"Things are not falling apart yet, but we are running at full tilt to counteract anything that might come out in the near future," he says.

Meanwhile, perhaps you should consider joining the other side. There are estimated to be fewer than 600 qualified document examiners in the U.S. and Canada, and the industry is looking for new blood. If you're interested, George Pearl of Atlanta, president of the Association of Forensic Document Examiners, urges you to contact AFDE's membership director, Vickie Willard, at 526 Superior Avenue, Suite 740, Cleveland, Ohio 44114, or (216) 574-2204. It takes about two years to learn the trade.

Don't Do the Crime

Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time, as the theme song from "Baretta" used to say. It's so easy to break certain laws with a computer that people sometimes forget they're engaging in criminal acts. You could make enough copies of WordPerfect in an afternoon to supply everyone on the block, but you would be breaking federal laws by doing so--and more and more pirates are being caught and prosecuted. Scanning in a dollar bill takes seconds, and printing out hundreds of them takes only a few minutes. But when you figure years behind bars into the equation, you just might not have time to take the risk.