Stanford U Professor Finds “It Is No Longer Safe To Write Personal Checks,” Creates Fictional Bank For Bragging Rights.

Donald Knuth has an unusual way of finding errors in his book, The Art of Computer Programming.  He sends checks to people who point out errors, be they typographical or otherwise.  Those checks, though, are rarely cashed.  One reason may be that they’re for $2.56, making them worthless to cash them.  That figure’s not a typo, by the way.

The other, and more probable, reason may reside in the fact that Donald Knuth has rock star-status in computer science circles.  In other words, those checks for $2.56 are going up on a wall somewhere as bragging rights, not unlike how some people I know would never, ever give up their autographed Farrah Fawcett posters.  You know the one that I’m referring to.

A way to assess Knuth’s popularity may be via, where his book is ranked 19,004 in sales.  Not bad for a computer science book that was first published back in 1968.  The good professor, however, has decided the $2.56 tradition must come to an end, and it’s not because the royalties from his book have become a trickle.

Nope, the reason is more mundane: bank fraud.  As the professor has noted, the bank account number and routing number found in the bottom of personal checks is all one needs to commit wire fraud.  He’s had to close three checking accounts recently in order to save his bank some grief.  (That’s one excellent bank.  Generally, check fraud doesn’t offer the protection credit cards have.  One would imagine the grief would be on the part of the professor.)  The belief is that criminal passers-by are gleaning the information from “walls of fame,” not that people with a penchant for pointing out typos are dabbling in bank scams.

This type of scam should be a familiar to anyone who’s watched Catch Me If You Can, the movie starring DiCaprio and Hanks.  What may be surprising to some is that those scams featured in the movie may be possible today (not to criminals, though, obviously).  A clear case of life imitating art imitating life.  This is why there was such a terrible ruckus earlier this year when the UK government lost two CDs with bank account information of nearly half of Britain’s population.  Since file encryption was not used to safeguard the data on those CDs, anyone who picked them up had a bonanza in their hands.

So, what does this mean for the professor?  Well, he’s creating a “virtual bank” where he gives brownie points instead of actual tender.  After all, that’s what a significant majority of the people are looking for.  A happy and logical compromise to what is a very good way of spotting typos.

The rest of the world, though, cannot live on brownie points alone.  Legal tender is what makes the world go around.  Which is why banks that can’t go virtual in the above sense are ramping up their use of data protection solutions such as disk encryption solutions like AlertBoot.

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