1Victor Lustig: the Man who sold the Eiffel Tower
In 1925, Lustig’s master con began when he was reading a newspaper: an article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. So he adopted the persona of a government official, and sent six scrap metal dealers an invitation to discuss a possible business deal.Lustig told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it for scrap. So he sold the Eiffel Tower to one of the scrap metal dealers and took a train to Vienna with the suitcase full of cash. The buyer was too humiliated to complain to the police.
Later, Lustig convinced gangster Al Capone to invest $40,000 in a stock deal. Lustig kept Capone’s money in a safe deposit box for two months, then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig’s integrity, Capone gave him $5,000. It was, of course, all that Lustig was after.
On 1907, Lustig arrived to the United States and conducted a number of scams, but eventually his luck ran out: he was arrested for counterfeiting and sent to Alcatraz prison. On March 9, 1947, he contracted pneumonia and died two days later.
2Frank Abagnale: catch me if you can
Then, for a period of two years, Abagnale masqueraded as Pan Am pilot “Frank Williams”, to get free rides around the world by dead heading on scheduled airline flights. Later, he impersonated a pediatrician for 11 months in a Georgia hospital under the name “Frank Williams”. He also forged a Harvard University Law diploma, passed the bar exam of Louisiana and got a job at the office of the State Attorney General of Louisiana.
Eventually he was caught in France in 1969 when an Air France attendant recognized his face from a wanted poster. When the French police apprehended him, 12 of the countries in which he had committed fraud wanted to extradite him. After a two day trial, he first served prison time in Perpignan’s House of Arrest in France; a one-year sentence that was reduced by the presiding judge at his trial to six months. His stay in Perpignan left him fearful of spending more time in another version of the prison.He was then extradited to Sweden where he was treated fairly well under Swedish law. During trial for forgery, his defense attorney almost had his case dismissed by arguing that he had “created” the fake checks and not forged them, but his charges were instead reduced to swindling and fraud. He served six months in a Malmö prison, only to learn at the end of it he would be tried next in Italy. Later, a Swedish judge asked a U.S. State Department official to revoke his passport. Without a valid passport Swedish authorities were forced to deport him to the U.S. He was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for multiple counts of forgery.
3Charles Ponzi: created the Ponzi Scheme
4Christopher Rocancourt: the french “Rockefeller”
One of his trademarks was to always have a stunningly beautiful woman on his arm. Beside being married to Pia Reyes, according to the press, he lived with playboy model Rhonda Rydell for six months. She did not know Rocancourt was married, and said he had told her he was French nobility, the son of a countess. In March 2002 he was extradited to New York and pleaded to charges of theft, grand larceny, smuggling, bribery, perjury and fraud against 19 victims. He was fined $9 million, was ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution and sentenced to five years in prison. In Switzerland, the police have connected him with a jewel theft and barred him from the country until 2016.He once estimated to Dateline that his various schemes/ventures netted him at least $40 million (USD), but this cannot be confirmed.
5Gregor MacGregor: drew investors to “Poyais”, a fictional country
6Cassie Chadwick: Andrew Carnegie’s “illegitimate daughter”
In 1897, Cassie began her largest, most successful con game: that of establishing herself as Andrew Carnegie’s daughter. She faked a promissory note of $2 million with Carnegie’s signature. The information leaked to the financial markets in northern Ohio, and banks begun to offer their services. For the next eight years she used this fake background to obtain loans that eventually totaled between 10 and 20 million dollars. When Carnegie was later asked about her, he denied ever knowing her: the scheme collapsed, she was arrested and the trial was a media circus. She died in jail.
7Ferdinand Demara: improvised successful surgeries as a fake surgeon
A string of pseudo-academic careers followed. He was, among other things, a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. One teaching job led to a six months in prison. He never seemed to get much monetary gain in what he was doing – just temporary respectability.
His most famous exploit was to masquerade as surgeon Joseph Cyr on the HMCS Cayuga, a Canadian Navy destroyer, during the Korean War. He managed to improvise successful surgeries and fend off infection with generous amounts of penicillin. This worked until the mother of the real Dr. Joseph Cyr found out and reported it.
Demara returned to the U.S., inspired the 1960 film “The Great Imposter,” and died on 1982 as a Baptist minister.
8David Hampton: Six Degrees of Separation from Sidney Poitier
Hampton began employing the persona of “David Poitier” to cadge free meals in restaurants. He then persuaded at least a dozen people into letting him stay with them in their homes or to give him money, including Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise, and Calvin Klein. He told some of them that he was a friend of their children, some that he had just missed his plane to Los Angeles and that all his luggage was on it, some that his belongings had been stolen.
On 1983, Hampton was arrested and convicted for his frauds and was ordered to pay restitution of $4,490 to his various victims; on 2003 he died of AIDS-related complications.
9Mary Baker: Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu
Eventually the truth came out: she was actually a cobbler’s daughter, Mary Baker, from Devon. She had been a servant girl in various places all over England but had not found a place to stay. She had invented a fictitious language out of imaginary and gypsy words and created an exotic character.She continued her role in the USA, France and Spain without the same luck. Her story was the basis of the 1994 movie “Princess Caraboo”, written by John Wells.
10Milli Vanilli: the pop duo that tricked the world
After this, the Grammy Award they received was stripped from them, and at least 26 different lawsuits were filed under various U.S. consumer fraud protection laws against Pilatus, Morvan and Arista Records. In 1998, only ten years after Milli Vanilli’s inital debut, Pilatus was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel of an apparent drug overdose.