Author and journalist Jason Kersten knows a thing or two about creating phony cash: His new book, The Art of Making Money, recounts the life and crimes of ace counterfeiter Art Williams, a man who printed and spent millions of phony bills.
As Kersten tells Scott Simon, Williams — who has been described as a thief, a thug and a true craftsman — grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, the son of a criminal who abandoned the family when his son was 12 years old.
As a youth, Williams spent time in juvenile hall for auto theft. Upon his release, a gentleman caller of his mother's introduced him to a new racket — counterfeiting — as a means of keeping him off the street.
It was a crime that took years to perfect. Williams focused on the hundred dollar bill, which was protected by a watermark, a security thread and color-shifting ink — none of which could be bought over the counter.
"It's a very grueling process if you're going to do it right. ... To make money on that level is a process that takes years," Kersten explains. "You have to know how to defeat the security measures in the bill."
Over the course of his career, Williams manufactured $10 million worth of fake money, including a counterfeit of the 1996 "new note," which was purported to be the most secure currency of its day.
Williams and his girlfriend passed their phony bills during buying sprees, at times spending $5,000 worth of cash in a matter of hours. And, in a bizarre twist, the two counterfeiters became civic benefactors, donating the cheap items they purchased to the Salvation Army.
"That became part of the entity itself, a part of the crime that they loved, because they felt like modern-day Robin Hoods," Kersten says.
Unfortunately for Williams, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor landed him in federal prison.
After Williams was released from his initial prison stint, Kersten says he thought the con man would go straight, perhaps becoming a security consultant like fellow trickster Frank Abagnale Jr. But Williams was dissatisfied with the salary he was able to earn legally. He decided to supplement his honest income with a few print runs on the side and was soon recaptured.
The great irony of Williams' criminal career, Kersten says, is that the con man probably could have made a fortune legally if he had set his mind to it: "Everyone who met him said if he had spent the time and effort in just a regular job, as he did making his money, he'd be CEO of a Fortune 500 company."