I’m Vegas bound this morning, to work on a dynamite Wired piece that’s currently occupying my creative front burner. As is always the case when I journey out to Bugsy Siegel’s desert dream, my thoughts have recently turned to the ways in which folks work the angles in pursuit of wealth. Most of these schemes involve the manipulation of human beings, and thus require their perpetrators to have an innate understanding of psychology. But there are also some great scams that are more suited to crooks versed in the physical sciences. My favorite bygone example dates back to the days when American coins were actually composed of precious metals, a fact that made them ripe targets for so-called gold sweaters—that is, criminals who specialized in shaving off minute traces of gold from coins, thereby slowly accumulating fortunes at the expense of the unsuspecting public. A 1910 New York Times report broke down some of the sweaters’ primary techniques:
One of the most insidious methods of “sweating,” and perhaps the most difficult of all to detect, is the electroplating method. The gold coins are placed in a chemical bath and part of the gold is detached by electricity and deposited on some other object. In this way the gold is removed with perfect evenness from all part of the coin. The letters and general design or the milling may be slightly dulled in the process, but only as it might be from general wear and tear. The lightness of the coin will be detected by the scales at the Treasury, but in the meantime such a coin may pass from hand to hand for a long time without arousing suspicion.
Another baffling method is to split the coin and remove the gold from the inner surface. The hole is then filled up with some baser metal, so that the weight will be the same, and the two sides are then welded together. It is possible to take one dollar’s worth of gold or more in this way from a $20 gold piece. If the work be skillfully done it is impossible to detect such a coin by its weight, and the only clue will be some flaw in its milling.
With the economy still in a major funk and gold prices near $1,300 an ounce, I wonder if this is a scam that’s ripe for a comeback. La Cosa Nostra might want to look into hiring some out-of-work chemists to sweat away gold from the new $1 coins. Though I would, of course, like to know the math on the break-even point for such a scheme. The fact that I can’t calculate that number in my head is precisely why I’ll be avoiding the blackjack tables this week.