How three cult movies popularised a unique form of computer fraud called salami slicing; stealing by tiny increments.
Superman III may not be the pick of the original DC franchise, but its plot is memorable for popularising a grift known as salami slicing. Salami slicing is theft via increments so small that they might go unnoticed. In terms of ingenuity, salami slicing is up there with the best hustles so it should be no surprise that several movies have used a salami slicing grift as the central element of their plot.
- If you want to learn what salami slicing is, first read our related article.
Superman III (1983) – Gus Gorman’s Salami Slicing Grift
Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve as the caped crusader set several box office records when released in 1978. But as is often the case, Warner Bros struggled to maintain that quality as it expanded the franchise. The critics panned Superman III, with Richard Pryor singled out for much of the abuse.
Pryor played a character called Gus Gorman, a down-on-his-luck guy drifting from one dead-end job to the next, who enrols in a computing course and soon discovers that he has a knack for programming.
Gorman uses his newfound skill to land a job in Metropolis for the data processing department of a financial conglomerate, Webscoe, named after its CEO and all-round villain, Ross Webster – who becomes Superman’s nemesis.
Unfortunately for Gus, his initial enthusiasm for a reliable 9-5 job is replaced by disappointment when he opens his first paycheque. Expecting $225, he receives only $143.80 after tax and social security deductions.
“First paycheque…first rip-off.”
The pennies floating in the system
Gus’s colleague explains that the deductions to his paycheque will ensure he has a pension at 65, but that doesn’t offer him much comfort. “I wanna have fun now. Get down and boogie”.
Gorman’s disappointment soon becomes an opportunity when he learns from his colleague that his paycheque was actually half a cent higher but rounded down for simplicity.
At the thought of all this orphaned money stuck in Wescoe’s computer system, a lightbulb goes off in his head, and he hatches his salami slicing plan.
‘So what happens to them [the fractions of pennies]….they’re just floating around out there?’ asks Gus Gorman. ‘The computers know where.’ replies his colleague.Superman III
So Gus uses his programming skills to find precisely where, diverting the fractions of pennies into an expense account in his name, accumulating $85,789 – around $265,000 in today’s money – making his second paycheque a lot more satisfying.
Unfortunately for Gus, his unique financial scam lands him in trouble, as rather than sit quietly on the money, he splashes out on a Ferrari, drawing the attention of Webster. The latter realises that Pryor’s character can now be leveraged to commit much more nefarious deeds, allowing the plot to develop.
Hackers (1995) – The Salami Slicing Worm
Just as Superman III’s focus on computer crime reflected the growing role of desktop computing in the workplace, Hackers, released in 1995, capitalised on the hacking counter-culture that grew in the early years of the internet.
Hackers boasted an impressive cast, including the first major role for Angelina Jolie, appearing alongside Jonny Lee Miller, who would go on to make Trainspotting in 1996.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that the plot of Hackers revolves around a group of teenage hackers, the most junior, Joey, who sets about proving his skills by hacking into ‘The Gibson’, a supercomputer used by a company called Ellingson Mineral Corporation.
Joey’s hack doesn’t quite go to plan, but his fumble inadvertently exposes a salami-slicing scam being perpetrated by Ellingson’s computer security officer, Eugene “The Plague” Belford to extract $25 million in tiny amounts from Ellingson transactions.
[Zero Cool] It isn’t a virus but a worm….it nibbles, you see this is every financial transaction Ellington conducts from million dollar deals to ten bucks some guys pay for gas.”
[Acid Burn] The worm nibbles a few cents from each transaction
[Zero Cool] No one’s caught it because the money isn’t really gone, it’s just money being shifted around The dialogue from Hackers where they uncover the salami slicing scam hidden inside Ellingson’s supercomputer
Computer historians will notice that Hackers is littered with subtle references. Gibson, the name given to the supercomputer, is a reference to William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, where the term cyberspace first appears.
Agent Bob, one of the central characters, reads out a quote from the Hacker Manifesto, which is a genuine document.
Office Space (1999) – Salami Slicing Vengeance
Fans of the salami-slicing plot from Superman III should also like Office Space – released in 1999 – where a group of disillusioned employees in a software company install a virus to divert fractions of pennies into a bank account they control.
As with Gus Gorman, the magnitude of the fraud ensures its downfall, proving that salami slicing doesn’t provide the elusive free lunch that every grifter dreams of.
The idea of salami slicing as a means for downtrodden workers to revenge on their corporate overlords provides an excellent fictional narrative, but there are plenty of great examples of salami slicing in real life.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) – Medical Insurance Fraud
Released in 2009, I Love You Phillip Morris is a gay love story with a twist. The film is based on the life of a conman nicknamed ‘Houdini’ – real name Steven Jay Russell – who escaped from prison four times to be with his lover, Phillip Morris, whom he met in prison in 1995.
Later that year, both Russell and Morris were on parole in Florida and in need of an income to support a lavish lifestyle. This time, Russell faked a CV to apply for the role of Chief Financial Officer at North American Medical Management (NAMM), an insurance provider.
The version of the fraud depicted in the film I Love You Phillip Morris – starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor – provides another example of salami slicing scam on the big screen.
Russell realises that at any one time, NAMM is holding up to $ 22 million in funds from Health Management Organisations (HMOs), a type of insurance plan where coverage is limited to retained or contracted doctors.
The funds will be allocated to doctors to cover medical expenses, but while the funds are waiting to be allocated they earn no interest.
Russell’s salami style scam is to create an investment account to earn short-term interest and skim 50% off the top so that both he and his employers gain.
Steven Jay Russell’s medical insurance salami slicing scam netted him $800,000 in five months before he was rumbled. In interviews, Russell said he was motivated to defraud the medical insurance management company because of the experience of a former lover who had died from AIDS.
Why does money get caught in the system?
Though the fictional salami slicing stories draw in audiences, it raises a question of how much value is stuck in digital accounts worldwide in balances too small to move and why that is.
There are no rules requiring retailers and online services to price in whole numbers, so inevitably, our digital wallets accumulate loose change below withdrawal limits, leaving it stuck. The reason why moving 5p isn’t the same as moving £500 is trust.
The modern financial system relies on establishing trust. Your bank will trust you once you prove your identity and your creditworthiness. You will trust your bank based on its reputation and regulatory standing.
Establishing that trust takes time and effort yet still results in costly disputes, so it doesn’t make financial sense for banks and payment providers to facilitate micro-payments.
Solving the trust dilemma was the main aim of a new form of money that emerged in 2008 – cryptocurrency. Though crypto has reduced the friction of value transfer, it hasn’t completely solved the problem; the financial dust floating in the system is just smaller.
Whatever the exact scale of crypto’s dust problem, it’s certainly enough to excite the likes of Gus Gorman. However, its decentralised nature makes performing a salami slicing style hack a much harder challenge than Superman III would have you believe, leaving that value locked away forever.
Given that money is just a means of transferring our labour across space and time, all those fractions of pennies stuck in bank or e-commerce accounts, the dust trapped in crypto wallets, or the coins lost down the backs of our sofas are essentially lost energy. Salami slicing is just an attempt to liberate it.
There are four prominent movies with plots that revolve around salami slicing scams:
Superman III (1983) – Starring Richard Pryor as a computer programmer who steals fractions of pennies.
Hackers (1995) – Starring Angelina Jolie, alongside Jonny Lee Miller.
Office Space (1999) – Starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) – Starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor.
No Free Lunch
There is no such thing as a free lunch, but if you’re hungry to find out why, we’re here to help.
You can learn the meaning and origin of the no free lunch concept, as well as the broader philosophy behind the idea that nothing can ever be regarded as free.
We look at our relationship with money and truth, examining all of the supposed shortcuts, life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.