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High-Tech Fraud: A Cautionary Tale

WHEN con-man Frank Abagnale Jr., was fleecing banks and airlines 20 years ago, some of the tools of his trade cost a pretty penny. One day he walked into a Las Vegas printers' supply shop and bought a special camera and offset press. He used the machines to forge 500 Pan Am expense checks and netted nearly $40,000 in less than two days.

Today's desktop-publishing computers can do far more with greater ease and less expense. Mr. Abagnale spent $8,000 to get his used equipment. Today, a used computer, scanner, and laser printer would cost less than half that amount.

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This is a cautionary tale about the flip side of technology. As computers get better and cheaper, business and government need to take precautions that the technology isn't misused.

"It is 10 times easier to do today what I did 20 years ago," says Abagnale, who served time in prison in both Europe and the United States and now helps protect companies from counterfeiters.

You and I can help in the fight.

Virtually anything can be forged: currency, passports, car titles, college transcripts, decals of expensive watches (which are then slapped on cheap imitations). Checks are a favorite target.

Last October, federal officials arrested a Michigan State University pre-med student and his friend for passing $40,000 worth of counterfeit cashiers' checks. Officials say the forgers did some of their dirty work with an Apple computer and a laser printer.

Document fraud costs the world economy billions of dollars. By one estimate, US banks lose four times more from document fraud than from armed robbery. Estimates range from $4 billion to $8 billion. No one knows the real figure.

So far, only a small portion of fraud appears to be computer-generated. But companies involved with document security see growing concern among their clients. And they are fighting back.

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Some of their solutions are high-tech: new technology fighting new technology, in essence. Other methods are decidedly low-tech.

Standard Register, a document-security company in Dayton, Ohio, noticed a significant increase in computer-generated fraud starting in the second half of 1989. It offers banks special papers, printing features, and equipment to make counterfeiting more difficult. No one feature is foolproof, but a combination of them can discourage even the professional forger.

For example, new computer-generated numbers make it hard to transpose, say, a check for $100 into $900. Documents can be made to bleed ink when someone tries to alter them or to reveal the word "void" when exposed to a color copier. Color scanners can't pick up the fine detail of a complicated, multicolored background or words printed in small type.

Everybody can use the simpler methods to detect forged checks. For example, virtually all checks are perforated along one edge at least. Yet amateur counterfeiters often succeed in cashing checks with four smooth edges.

A lot of store clerks watch out for new checking accounts with low check numbers. (They cause the most problems.) But Abagnale is training tellers and clerks to cross-reference other information on the check.

For example, a bank headquartered in New York City won't have the Federal Reserve district of Atlanta in its routing code. Forgers sometimes alter these routing codes intentionally. That gives them time to deposit bad checks into an account, wait the holding period, and then withdraw the cash before the checks clear.

But they usually avoid changing the tiny, fraction-like numbers in the upper right-hand portion of the check, because they are too hard to reproduce. A sharp-eyed teller will make sure that those tiny numbers match the routing code at the bottom of the check.

That may sound like a tall task, since billions of checks are written each year (50 billion in the US alone). But a little vigilance - and a willingness to double-check any document that arouses suspicion - can go a long way to putting counterfeiters out of business.

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