In 1896 T Camden Pratt published his Unknown London which he described as "A contribution to the history of London; and a guide to places generally unknown". It is an entertaining collection of essays on diverse subjects and London types. One day he met a forger.....
On the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, it is best to go to an expert in forgery for information as to how it is done. Such an opportunity presented itself the other day, and as the information obtained not only throws a considerable light upon the forger's artfulness as well as upon his art, it may be well to give some of the details by way of warning to those whose carelessness and want of knowledge of the forger's ways enable him to pursue his calling with conspicuous success. This, of course, refers to the forging of cheques. The falsification of accounts, the altering of valuable documents, come under the same category, and to a large extent are effected by the same method of manipulation; but in these cases the forger has to rely upon his own wit rather than upon the heedlessness and gullibility of others. It is in the manipulation of cheques that forgery has been brought to a fine art, and it is amazing to see with what ease and safety enormous hauls can be made.
But first let us take a lesson in forgery. Imagine yourself in a small room, furnished as an office. You are invited to take a seat at a table, on which is a cheque made out to someone for a small sum. Close to it is an ounce bottle, filled- with a white liquid, a fine camel-hair brush, and a sixpenny box of water- colours. This is the forger's stock-in-trade. And here comes the first revelation of the art. The professional expert does not get a blank cheque and fill it in, laboriously simulating someone's signature. He knows that there are little marks upon a cheque, slight trivialities, which he may overlook, but which would lead to detection. And then the imitation of the signature is so difficult, whereas the manipulation of the cheque is so easy.
You watch him as he takes the cork from the bottle, dips into the liquid the camel's-hair brush, and then deftly traces over the figures and writing which he wishes to efface. As if by magic, the ink-writing disappears. You notice, too, that with the ink there has also disappeared some of the coloured pattern upon the cheque -in this case, pink - and you point this out to the forger, who is still painting out the lettering. He admits it at once. Cheques are printed in that way, he tells you, as a safeguard, so that any attempt to take out the ink would also remove the colouring, and so, bankers fondly hoped, would lead at once to detection. But our forger does not seem in the least troubled by this reflection.
When all the writing he wants removed has gone, he lets the cheque dry, and then fills it up once more. "The cheque for 21 10s. has become a cheque for 2,150 10s. But there are plainly perceptible upon it the little white patches where the pink colouring has been removed. He then takes up the sixpenny box of water-colours, calmly mixes a pink that matches the pink of the cheque, and then carefully stipples over the white patches, imitating as far as possible the original pattern. To ordinary observation there is nothing now noticeable, but he admits that if examined with a glass in a good light it might be noticed.
But it is part of the forger's artfulness never to present a cheque over the banker's counter. He not being known, it is sure to be looked at closely. So he pays it into a bank, or gets rid of it in other ways, of which more hereafter. The crossing of a cheque has no terror for him; if it is not crossed, he will cross it himself. Here is the forged cheque, and you are bound to admit that there is nothing to excite suspicion in its appearance. The falsification has been done in a few minutes, with the most ordinary skill imaginable. Will he tell you what the white fluid is? Certainly; there is no secret about it. It is simply chlorine water, such as is sold in stationers' shops for removing ink blots. Or you can make it yourself. Get a pinch of chloride of lime, such as is used for disinfecting. Put it in a bottle, fill it up with water; shake it and leave it till morning. It gives off a volatile gas, which is chlorine gas. In the morning there will be a milky-white fluid, with a little sediment at the bottom. This chlorine water is what is used.
Having shown how the cheque is manipulated, he proceeds to tell you of the various methods of putting the art into practice. One of the most striking instances is a case which is still agitating the Berlin police. Only a little time ago a man went into a large bank at Berlin, and, with an admirable assumption of being a greenhorn in money matters, said he wanted them to send for him 13,000 to Melbourne. He was, he said, emigrating to Australia, and did not want to carry the money about with him. Could they 'express' it for him to Melbourne, so that when he reached his destination he could draw it out? He was told he might buy a draft, and when he got to Melbourne, the bank's agents there would cash it for him. 'Oh, but,' he remarked, with an admirable assumption of guilelessness, 'I have my money here; and I want this same money when I get the other side. I don't know anything about drafts.'
And so he went on, the bank manager finding it difficult to explain to him that his money would be safe; he was so fearful of losing it. At last he completed the negotiation, and paid over the 13,000, all in good notes. These men always operate on a large scale. The possession of a large sum of money disarms suspicion. This operation being accomplished, the man suddenly remembered that he must send 12 to someone, could they let him have a draft for 12 also? Of course this was done, and the 12 draft was the next number to the one for 13,000. Having secured these, he went to his hotel, and the next operation was to alter the 12 draft. He altered the amount to 13,000 in the way we have seen, and also altered the number of the draft, well-knowing that all drafts are notified by number. Then he went to his port of embarkation for Australia, where the vessel lay on which he had taken his passage. But before going on board he visited the biggest local bank.
Having asked to see the manager, he explained to him that having intended to go on to Australia, he had bought this draft, producing the good one; but that he had been recalled by telegram from America, would it be possible to get the draft cashed without his going back to Berlin? To show his bona fides he offered to leave the draft for an hour or two and pay the telegraphing charges. Under the circumstances, there was no difficulty; the draft was good, and the money was paid. So far, he had only got his money back. But he had also the forged draft for 13,000. He knew that the draft would be advised at once to Melbourne by the boat he was travelling by, whereas the letter cancelling the advice would be too late, for that post, and would go on by the next boat. He accordingly travelled to Melbourne; went straight to the bank there, and the draft being fully advised, he got the money and disappeared. This was only found out a few weeks ago, and, so far, there is no clue to the man.
A very similar case occurred in Liverpool and London recently. In this case drafts were obtained in much the same way, one for several hundreds, and one for a small amount. In this case the draft for the small amount having been altered to imitate the one for a large amount was first cashed. Then the forger came to London, and bought some shares of a stockbroker. After one or two transactions, during which he showed he had plenty of money, he said he had been called away, paid for the shares by the good draft, got a cheque for the difference, and was no more heard of. In the usual three days the draft was returned to the stockbroker as a forgery, but it being found to be the real draft, the bank had to bear the loss.
This sort of case requires tact and discretion; but it is a simple thing to get rid of forged cheques. The forger goes to a hotel, takes rooms for some days, and shortly afterwards asks the manager to pass some cheques through his bank, and give him the money when the cheques have been honoured. There is nothing to excite suspicion in this; it has a look of honesty about it, The cheque being received at the bank with a lot of others is scarcely looked at. It is passed on to the drawer's bank, and is duly honoured, and it is not until some time afterwards, when the paid cheques are returned to the man who originally drew them, that the alteration in the amount is discovered. By that time the forger has disappeared.
Another way is for the forger to open a banking account in another name and pay in the forged cheques himself. This is a common proceeding with defaulting clerks. Only recently there was a case at Pontefract, where a solicitor's clerk obtained cheques and paid them into his own bank. To cross a cheque `to account of Payee' is generally regarded as a safeguard against this sort of thing, but in such a case it is only necessary to alter the name of the person to whom the cheque is made out. But even that is not absolutely necessary, for many bankers do not pay any more attention to that injunction than they do to the 'not negotiable.' This leads up to the point of how careless people are with regard to cheques. However careful a firm may be with the chequebook, and with the examination of cheques before signing, it is very rarely any special care is taken of them afterwards. They are thrown into a basket with other letters to post, and sent to be posted by a clerk; so that the abstraction of cheques for small amounts is an easy matter, whereas the detection of the culprit is very difficult, especially if he is wary in his manner of disposing of the cheques when he has altered the amounts.
And it is not only cheques and drafts, but dividend coupons that are altered. Perhaps the most startling case of this kind was a man who some time ago altered a coupon and obtained 50,000 from the Bank of England. He tried it again, but they were on the watch for him, and he was caught. This man, who was regarded as a King of Forgers, was said to have secured no less a sum than two millions sterling in this way. It seems incredible, but it is well known that large sums are obtained. Not only is a man with plenty of money less an object of suspicion than a man with none, but a man who operates largely can the more readily get rid of his forgeries. He gets among stockbrokers and financial people accustomed to deal with large amounts and cheques, and bank drafts are changed, or taken in payment for shares, with little or no enquiry.
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Turning at last to the possibility of preventing these frauds, the expert said that all the printers of cheques advertised that they used specially prepared papers which resisted acids, but there were none which could not be altered. All sorts of precautions had been invented from time to time. One of the most popular was to perforate the cheque with figures corresponding to the amount written on the cheque. But the ingenuity of the forger is equal to this trial of his skill. Some of the letters lend themselves very readily to alteration. A 3, for instance, by the addition of a couple of holes, becomes 8, and nothing has been devised which does not permit of easy alteration. Only recently a cheque made out by the Societe Generale of Paris for 48 was altered to 4,800. The figures in this case were originally 2. 48 0. 0.' The initial figure indicated that the draft was for a sum of two figures. The forger had, therefore, to alter that, and preserve the delicate sea-green tint of the Societe Generale's cheques. This was, however, successfully accomplished. It is impossible to detect by ordinary observation that it has been tampered with. It is satisfactory, however, to find that there is one invention that has defied the forger's art; that is a machine which cuts the figures out bodily, instead of indicating them by perforation. It cuts out so much of the cheque that it is impossible to tamper with it in any way. When this comes into general use, as no doubt it will, virtue will be once more triumphant, and once again will villainy be vanquished.
This article forms part of our Crime and Punishment Series.
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