It's easy to be a crook. All you need is a devious mind, a malnourished conscience, and to be open to pooping in the same toilet you use to make wine, should a career in crime not work out. But what if you've only got the first and last of those things? What use is a penchant for mischief and a palate for pruno if you're stuck with a sense of morality? Well, some criminal masterminds have found ways to use their nefarious skills in service of the greater good. We're talking about people like ...
You don't expect your part-time job as a teen to change the world. You barely expect it to pay. So when young Adolfo Kaminsky started working for a dry cleaner to earn some extra lager money, he didn't realize his stain-removal knowledge would eventually turn him into a bona fide hero.
When Nazi Germany invaded France, 17-year-old Kaminsky saw his mother killed by soldiers and the rest of his Jewish family sent to a concentration camp. Fortunately, they didn't stay long, but Kaminsky soon realized few were that lucky. During the occupation, he saw thousands of people deported, all because they didn't have the right documentation. Kaminsky joined the French Resistance, where one of the members found out he had experience with cleaning chemicals. So they asked him to remove something that was bad for people's health: the word "Jew" on passports.
Kaminsky had just the trick. With lactic acid, he could erase ink from documentation without leaving a trace, and then write in whatever he wanted. At 18, he became the Resistance's youngest forger, and quickly thereafter, he also became their best. With the help of expert illustrators like Suzy Schidlof, he could forge 30 documents per hour, helping up to 500 people gain new identities every week.
With that kind of skill, Kaminsky could have made a fortune on the black market. But he refused to be paid for his heroics. He also refused to sleep most days, feeling guilty whenever he wasn't working. That's not a problem we can relate to, but then, we're not forcing two dozen people to risk death every time we skip writing a list to play Star Control.
By the time the Nazis were driven out of Paris, Kaminsky had saved the lives of at least 14,000 Jewish men, women, and children. He was given every French medal under the sun (which he doesn't like to talk about), and his skills were so good the French secret service put him to use making forgeries for their spies. Then in the '60s, he left behind his comfortable life in France to travel the world and forge documents for people fleeing other dictatorships -- free of charge, of course.
In the world of professional entertainers, there's a certain hierarchy. Magicians look down on ventriloquists, ventriloquists look down on dog acts, and everyone looks down on prop comics. But there's one niche so obscure that most people forget it even exists: the theatrical pickpocket. At least, that was the case until a guy named Apollo Robbins appeared out of nowhere, pinched everyone's watches, and made the world a better place.
Robbins grew up in a family of thieves, but because a childhood disability messed with his fine motor skills, he could only watch as his brothers picked pockets at the zoo. But all that careful observation led Robbins to discover the true secret of masterful pickpocketing: If you can read how a person thinks, you can misdirect them with such precision that no Rolex is safe, regardless of any physical limitations.
Robbins has since rolled Charles Barkley for all the money in his pockets, lifted Jennifer Garner's engagement ring off her finger, and robbed President Jimmy Carter's Secret Service agents blind. He's so good that he even stole from famous magician duo Penn and Teller, removing Penn Jillette's ink cartridge out of his pen ... while he was writing with it. Robbins managed to turn his skills into a million-dollar business. His Vegas shows sell out in seconds, and he's also big in Hollywood, where he's paid the big bucks to advise on crime capers, teaching the likes of Will Smith and Margot Robbie the art of convincing petty theft.
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He also teaches classes to law enforcement on how to spot and stop pickpockets. Though he probably doesn't teach them all of his tricks, because as he notes, a good pickpocket will always ask "Am I being paid enough to give it back?"
Canadian Mohan Srivastava is a geological statistician, which might be the most boring combination of words we've ever typed. But don't tune out just yet, or you'll miss the story of how he gamed the state lottery. Srivastava's fateful moment came when a buddy gave him some scratch-off lottery tickets as a joke. One of them was a tic-tac-toe game, which earned the mathematician three whole Canadian dollars (that's -1.25, in American dollars). Which got him thinking.
Srivastava figured that the lottery had to control the amount of winning tickets to turn a profit, which meant that the algorithm making tic-tac-toe couldn't be totally random, and instead worked on a pattern. With that in mind, he used the info on unscratched cards to figure out if they had winning games hidden underneath. He achieved a whopping 90 percent success rate. He then asked friends to send him scratchcards from all over North America, and found that he could crack about every tic-tac-toe game on the continent. He also discovered that most retailers were totally cool with him buying tickets in bulk and later returning the unscratched ones. Basically, he found a way to make unlimited dollars.
But Srivastava was one of those rare statisticians with a soul. Swiping winners meant he'd lower the chances for anyone else (and those were already terrible to begin with). So instead of becoming a millionaire three Canadian dollars at a time, he decided to inform the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation about the flaw in the system so no one else could ever exploit it. At first they ignored Srivastava, but that stopped when he sent them 20 untouched cards, sorted into winners and losers, and told them to scratch and see for themselves. Being a geological statistician must pay very, very well.
Paul Wilson learned the ways of hustling at an early age, when his grandpa taught him how to cheat at gin. That sounds like a pretty rad grandpa ... who had no idea what he'd unleashed. For much of the '90s, Wilson hit casinos hard -- counting cards, shuffle tracking, and all of those other very legal methods that will get you blackballed from any reputable gambling den in the world. He never got caught, so in the year 2000, he decided to turn the tables and started teaching casinos how to avoid getting ripped off by people like ... well, himself.
Wilson has given lectures on how to avoid scams, not just to regular schmoes, but also to big corporations, banking groups, and even institutions like MasterCard. But his greatest scamanitarian work came in 2002, when he made the long-running BBC TV show The Real Hustle. In it, he and some co-hosts deconstructed con jobs like turncoat magicians, and explored how hustlers exploit our blind spots -- like how quickly we'll give personal information to anyone with a clipboard, or how we throw our car keys at anyone wearing a fluorescent jacket within a mile of a parking service.
Wilson further collaborated in the writing of several scientific papers with Dr. Frank Stajano, professor of security and privacy at the University of Cambridge. And he helped create a fraud forum called SAFER, where he and other noble hucksters share their knowledge and experience for the benefits of rubes all across the globe. (He doesn't call them rubes, though -- rubes don't like that.)
In the digital age, anything can be hacked. Computers, phones, TVs ... even the little screen on your microwave isn't safe from malicious cup noodle hackers. But it's hard to do real damage by, say, hacking into someone's smart toaster. Not so with smart cars, where a hacker could potentially take the wheel and send you hurtling at 100 mph toward certain doom. But if your car is hacked by Chris Valasek or Charlie Miller, they'll only blast the radio, pull you over, and lecture you about how unreliable the auto industry is.
With their impressive skill set, they've worked as cybersecurity experts for big players like Twitter, Uber, and even the NSA. But the two former work buddies like to meet up on occasion in their free time and dabble in a bit of charity (i.e. taking a wrecking ball to irresponsible car companies).
In 2015, the duo released a video in which they remotely took over a Cherokee Jeep by easily hacking into its onboard entertainment system through a cellphone network. Fortunately, the incident didn't end in some sort of real-life death race. All they chose to do was mess with the air conditioning, slow the car to a crawl, and blast Skee-lo's hit song "I Wish" -- not realizing that forcing someone to relive a '90s-era family road trip like that is a crime in itself.
When Fiat Chrysler was confronted with this terrible security flaw, they did what any car company would do: They pretended it wasn't that big of a deal. But some mild nudging from the government convinced the company to recall 1.4 million vehicles and create a patch to prevent any nutcase with a laptop from remotely driving a car off a bridge. A happy ending, right? Not really. Just a year later, the pair once again launched an attack on the same system to prove it still wasn't completely safe. And to absolutely make sure companies were kept on their toes, they also published a million dollars' worth of hacking tools online for free. Because they know that the only reliable corporation is one that is constantly under attack.
Marvin may not be a master lottery decoder, but he has a Twitter which he puts to good use.
E. Reid Ross has a couple books, Nature is the Worst: 500 reasons you'll never want to go outside again and Canadabis: The Canadian Weed Reader, both available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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