According to a new biography, a man who became infamous for deception got his start at a young age. As a high school sophomore, this young man was assigned to present a book report to his class.

Because he never got around to reading anything, he stood up in the classroom and proceeded to tell his classmates about "Hunting and Fishing" by Peter Gunn — a book that didn't exist. When the teacher asked him to show her the book, the student calmly replied that he couldn't because he'd already returned it to the library.

The young student was Bernard Madoff, who later in life became notorious for his Ponzi scheme that bilked investors out of billions of dollars.

Santa Claus may know who's been naughty and who's been nice this time of year, but spotting a liar isn't always simple.

In the 1991 book "The Day America Told the Truth," by James Patterson and Peter Kim, research showed that 91% of Americans admit to lying routinely, while 36% confessed to big, important lies. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said they lie regularly to parents, 75% to friends, 73% to siblings, 69% to spouses, 81% about their feelings, 43% about their income and 40% about sex.

Psychologist Michael Lewis of Rutgers University says there are three types of lies: lies to protect feelings, such as saying a gift is nice when you actually hate it, lies to avoid punishment and lies of self-deception. While the first type might be acceptable, the other two are never OK. It's important to know that you are dealing with honest people who can be trusted. But how do you know?

The TV show "Lie to Me," which ran from 2009-2011, featured a psychologist who could recognize lying by observing the slightest change of expression or a subtle unconscious gesture. Most of us aren't that skilled, but you can learn to spot a lie by paying close attention. Here's what to watch and listen for:

• Words and gestures that don't match. Look at the timing of people's words and gestures (or expressions). Example: Joe says "I'd love to help you with that" but frowns, or he flashes a smile a moment or so afterward. Sincere, spontaneous gestures and expressions are normally simultaneous with statements.

• Repetition. Liars are more likely to repeat your question or rephrase it when answering. You: "Did you take the last piece of cake?" Liar: "No, I didn't take the last piece of cake."

• A thoughtful pause. Most people need time to think before they tell a lie. "I had to … take my mother to the dentist," for example. Be sensitive to hesitations and pauses when they answer your questions.

• Try changing the subject. When you suspect someone is lying, switch to a different topic. Liars will be relieved that you've moved on and eager to engage the new topic. People telling the truth are more likely to be confused by the abrupt switch.

• Don't jump to conclusions. All of these behaviors may have alternative explanations. If the matter is serious, investigate the facts before making any accusations.

A CIA agent was told to find a small village in Ireland and pick up some highly sensitive information from a secret operative stationed there whose name was Murphy.

The CIA man was told the agent would identify himself when he heard the code phrase, "The sun is shining, the grass is green and the cows are ready for pasture."

So the agent located a small village in County Cork and checked into a local guesthouse under an assumed name. Seeking to stretch his legs, he was walking down a country road when he saw a farmer coming toward him. He stopped the man and said, "I'm looking for a man named Murphy."

"Well, you've come to the right place," said the farmer, "but we have a butcher who is named Murphy, a baker named Murphy and an auto mechanic on the edge of town who is named Murphy. In fact, my own name is Murphy."

Thinking he might have stumbled onto the right man already, the CIA agent softly repeated the code phrase, "The sun is shining, the grass is green and the cows are ready for pasture."

"Oh," said the farmer, "you're looking for Murphy the spy — he's in that town in the other direction over there!"

Mackay's Moral: Honesty is not just the best policy — it should be your only policy.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail