`Making Money' worthy addition to con-men books

June 4, 2009 8:11:53 AM PDT
When the Federal Reserve Bank debuted a redesigned $100 bill in 1996, it was trumpeted as the most high-tech, counterfeit-proof currency to date. It took Art Williams four months to produce a convincing duplicate of it.

Williams' forgery wasn't the first copy of the new c-note - others had emerged on the black market while he was serving a prison sentence. But his was among the best available, and caused a stir among his associates in Chicago's criminal underground, who immediately placed orders for hundreds of thousands in bogus dollars.

His background was appropriate for a career criminal. The product of an absent father and a mentally ill mother, he spent an excruciating childhood in a tough South Side Chicago neighborhood, where street violence was common and the only apparent road to wealth was through the mob.

Williams graduated from robbery and car theft when, as a teenager, he was taken under the wing of a master counterfeiter who hired him as his apprentice. Eventually, Williams began his own counterfeiting operation and improved on his mentor's technique.

Even before the $100 bill's redesign, counterfeiting was considered one of the most difficult criminal endeavors, and an ancient, nearly forgotten art. The new c-note, with its color-shifting ink and special chemical composition that responded to a counterfeit-detecting pen, presented challenges that intimidated more experienced counterfeiters than Williams.

But Williams' persistence was matched only by his ingenuity in defeating the bill's security measures, often finding the answers in unexpected places. (He discovered that paper from the telephone book passed the pen test. He mimicked the color-shifting ink with automotive paint and a rubber stamp.)

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Williams' story is how the money was almost secondary to the freedom it afforded him, and the normal family he felt he'd been denied. He frequently brought trusted friends on freewheeling road trips to spend his counterfeit and stay ahead of the law. His travels eventually bring him to the doorstep of his estranged father.

Williams came to view his spending trips as a sort of early retirement, and an enticing alternative to a society that offers only the oppression of poverty or a dull, soul-numbing job.

"We joked that we were doing life backwards, but was that any worse than what everbody else was doing? Waiting to get old to appreciate their freedom?" said a girlfriend who traveled cross-country with Williams. "I think we came closer to achieving pure freedom on that trip than anyone I've ever met. It sounds strange, but it was almost spiritual."

"The Art of Making Money" is reminiscent of other stories of geniuses who subvert the system for profit and adventure, such as Frank Abagnale's con-artist memoir, "Catch Me If You Can," or "Bringing Down the House," Ben Mezrich's tale of card-counting M.I.T. students.

This counterfeiting tale is a worthy addition to the bunch.

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