Ingenious scams have been in the media a lot lately – did you hear about this week's shock scam? A gang led by actor Aoife Madden became the very first people to be convicted of defrauding the British Film Commission. The gang had created a bogus script, and bogus investors, in order to claim £3 million in tax relief from the Film Commission. But the Commission got suspicious when no film was released, leading to the gang duping celebrities into shooting a half-hearted attempt. Despite releasing the film, the Commission prosecuted the gang, and the full story came out. Here’s some of the other most popular ingenious scams…
Back in the 19th Century, Scotsman Gregor MacGregor announced to investors that he had been made prince of a Central American island called Poyais. He gave out detailed guides to the geography and resources of the island, and promoted it as a place most deserving of investment. His problem came when 250 colonists set off to live on his amazing new island – and discovered that it doesn’t exist. 200 of the colonists died, and MacGregor was revealed as a fraudster. Back in the 19th century, this was one of the most entrepreneurial ingenious scams!
Can you imagine buying the Eiffel Tower? Well, Andre Poisson did. Andre was a scrap dealer who had a visit from a Mr Victor Lustig in 1925. Victor convinced Andre that he was a Government minister charged with selling the tourist attraction, complaining that its upkeep was just too much. Lustig went to all lengths to make himself seem legitimate, even renting a limousine to drive Andre around and convince him that buying the Tower would be doing France a favor. Lustig even made out that he should be selling the Tower to one of Andre’s rivals, and was paid a bribe as well as the Tower money! Lustig ran off to Vienna with the money, and Poisson was so embarrassed he didn’t even report the crime to the police.
Frank Abagnale is a man with a problem – he’s a compulsive liar. His first known scam set out to achieve free holidays. Frank would fly around the world and stay in the best hotels - all by calling Pan American Airlines and claiming to be a pilot who had lost his uniform. Every time he received a clean new uniform, and even an employee ID! When he got bored of travelling, Frank doctored a fake degree, and taught sociology at a leading US university for a year, and then spent 11 months pretending to be a children’s doctor in a Georgian hospital. He then spent a year working as an attorney. Sound familiar? Frank was the inspiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Catch Me If You Can.
Ever dreamed of living someone else's life for a while? African-American David Hampton did. He decided to live the life of a celebrity, by pretending to be one. David started by claiming free meals at restaurants and VIP treatment at events, claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. As he got more confident, he went on to con money and accommodation from celebrities, including Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise and Calvin Klein. He was arrested and detained in 1983. Crazy.
Back in 1983, German magazine Stern paid 9 million German marks for 60 books that were said to be Hitler’s lost diaries. Stern had two trusted historians read through the books to authenticate them, but did not order forensic analysis out of fear that another publication would become aware of their existence. The diaries were printed in publications across the world, including The Sunday Times, before they were found to be forged. The writing was heavily criticized for being a poor copy of Hitler’s own, and many historians expressed shock that an editor would believe these were Hitler’s diaries. Konrad Kujau was arrested after Stern handed his name to police.
Wolfgang Beltracchi has made millions from his paintings – but not under his own name. The talented artist painted a range of pictures in the styles of 20th century artists, and then sold them as newly discovered paintings. He made a fortune. One such painting hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Steve Martin paid $860,000 for one. Another, in the style of Max Pechstein, went for $7 million. He made a fortune, before eventually being arrested in 2010. Wow.
Were you one of the hundreds that rushed out to buy James Frey’s autobiography? The book, which detailed Frey’s struggle with addiction, become a sensation when it was released. It contained brutally honest accounts of his life, along with dramatic accounts of his criminal record, jail time, drug usage and injuries. He even describes hitting a police officer while high on drugs, claiming that it caused a big police fight and lead to an 87 day jail sentence. The problem? Website The Smoking Gun was suspicious, and took a closer look into Frey’s background. They found that most of the autobiography was full of complete lies, and barely recognizable exaggerations. One of the most stand out cases was the one above – it turned out Frey was detained in a cell for just 5 hours, and a few minor charges. Frey eventually admitted that the whole book was a lie while talking to Oprah Winfrey in 2006. His ingenious scams had been uncovered…
I'm sure you're familiar with the term, but do you know the story behind it? Charles Ponzi, an Italian-American businessman, became famous in 1920 for a money-making scheme involving postal reply coupons. Ponzi lured in investors by promising impressive returns on their investment however, no profits were being made. According to reports, he had this scheme going for well over a year and cost investors $20 million dollars. That's a lot of money, especially in the 1920s!
Many of us have fantasized about a life of riches and fame, but Christopher Rocancourt took it a step further. Although Rocancourt had done his share of petty crimes in the past, he was most noted for claiming to be a French Rockefeller and conning millions of dollars from the rich with promises of doubling their investments. Once he received cash advances from the millionaires, he fled to Canada where he was eventually arrested. According to Biography.com, Rocancourt penned a few books and even had a line of denim which earned around $40 million.
While you might have thought that scams have had their day, it seems that they are now becoming more common. There’s an ever increasing amount of police reports regarding online sales, scammers and fraud, and it can be very tough to ever resolve these cases. So keep your wits about you! Which ingenious scams can you not believe? I’m still shocked Frank got away with it…
This article was written in collaboration with editor Lisa Washington.
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