Too Good To Be True - The World’s Greatest Scams and Swindles

A chance to get an insight into the mind of an evil genius seemed too good to miss back in 1983, when diaries by none other than Hitler himself came to light. Purportedly written between 1933 and 1945, the journals containing the Fuhrer’s musings had been taken out of the ruins of Berlin in the chaos at the end of the war, but the plane crashed. The diaries, along with other invaluable historical papers, were later found decades later in an East German hayloft.

There was some skepticism, as you’d expect, but the diaries were authenticated, by comparing the script to surviving samples of Hitler’s handwriting. The German magazine Stern paid $2.3 million for the diaries, plus a previously unknown third volume of Mein Kampf. Stern quickly starting serializing the diaries and other publications followed suit. Even London’s venerable Sunday Times bought publication rights, after highly experienced Hitler expert Hugh Trevor-Roper verified that the diaries were indeed Adolf’s own work.

Phony Flashbacks from the Fuhrer

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All the experts agreed that the handwriting matched Hitler’s and that the same person composed all the journals. The second part was true, but to the embarrassment of many, the author was not the Fuhrer. The diaries were in fact written by Konrad Kujau, who’d also conned a few people selling them what he claimed were Hitler’s paintings, as well as the gun Hitler used to end it all back in 1945. Kujau carefully forged the German leader’s handwriting in all 62 volumes, even staining the odd page here and there with tea, to make it appear more realistic. Kujau certainly made a lot of money from the Fuhrer’s fanciful recollections, but spent three years in jail, before becoming a minor celebrity in Germany. He died in 2000, aged 62.

Frankly Fake

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Frank Abagnale was very successful as an imposter in his younger days, amassing more than $2.5 million from crimes in 26 countries, posing as an airline pilot and a doctor, among other professions. Frank’s first fakes involved writing cheques on his own overdrawn bank account. He progressed to printing his own cheques, not perfect perhaps, but good enough to fool an awful lot of people. He then printed his own bank account number on blank deposit slips and added the phony forms to the real ones people were using at the bank. This scheme alone brought in more than $40,000.

Not content with bogus banking scams, Abagnale began impersonations. For two years, he posed as Frank Williams, who was supposedly a Pan Am pilot. Fortunately he was never asked to fly a plane, but his deception got him free flights all over the world. Changing professions, Abagnale used the same name to masquerade as a pediatrician at a hospital in Georgia for eleven months. He then decided to try legal work, forging a Harvard University Law diploma, passing the bar exam of Louisiana and getting a job at the office of the State Attorney General of Louisiana office.

Abagnale’s luck eventually ran out. In 1969, an Air France attendant recognized him face from a wanted poster. He was arrested in France, but twelve other countries also wanted to extradite him for fraud offences. After serving time in France, he was extradited to Sweden. After his time there he was about to be sent Italy for trial, but was extradite to the U.S. instead, where he was sentenced to twelve years for multiple crimes.

Although Abagnale certainly found that crime doesn’t pay, he’s had something of a legitimate career since serving his time. The movie Catch Me If You Can was based on his criminal adventures and he now runs a consulting firm. The firm’s specialty? How to avoid financial fraud, a topic on which Abagnale certainly has some expertise.

Unwise Investments

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Joseph Weil was one of the most famous con men in his era. He firmly believed that just about anyone wanted to get something for nothing and had absolutely no problem with took full advantage of such people. Weil is believed to have stolen around $8 million during the course of his criminal career. He started off with protection rackets. While working as a collector, he learned that some of his co-workers were collecting their debts, but keeping some money for themselves. Weil promised not to tell anyone about his colleagues’ indiscretions, in return for a piece of the action. 

Weil started his con man career in the 1890s, selling Meriwether's Elixir, a supposedly miraculous beverage, chiefly composed of rainwater. Over the years, he employed a number of schemes and took on different personas to persuade the gullible to part with their hard earned cash. As a traveling geologist, Weil claimed to be a representative for a big oil company then took all the money people gave him to invest. As the director of a development company, Weil promised land to potential buyers then scammed them with phony fees. People gambling on horse races fell for fake wiretap schemes, that Weil guaranteed would help them beat the odds. He sold talking dogs to incredibly gullible members of the public who wanted exotic pets, then broke the news that the dogs had laryngitis when the buyers actually met the miraculous mutts. A detective was even convinced to buy $30,000 in stock from Weil, while escorting the notorious scam artist to prison. Weil served a jail term in Atlanta from 1940 to 1942 and died at the age of 100 in Chicago in 1976.

The French Rockefeller

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Christopher Rocancourt is an imposter and con man, specializing in scamming easily fooled rich people by masquerading as a French member of the Rockefeller family. He got his start in Paris, where he faked the deed to a property he didn’t own, then sold it for $1.4 million, not a bad profit at all. Rocancourt then traveled to the United States, where his various bogus job titles included ex-boxing champion, venture capitalist or movie producer. He’d mention Sophia Loren as his mother or Dino De Laurentiis and Oscar de la Renta as his uncles. Rocancourt always claimed to be associated with numerous celebrities. He married Playboy model Pia Reyes and they had a son called Zeus. While living in Hollywood, Rocancourt reportedly persuaded Jean-Claude Van Damme to produce his next movie.

Although Rocancourt was married to Reyes, he also lived with another Playboy model, Rhonda Rydell, for six months. Rydell later said Rocancourt had told her he was a French noble, but she had no idea he was married. Rocancourt pleaded guilty in early 2002 to charges of bribery, fraud, grand larceny, perjury, smuggling, and theft, against 19 victims. He was fined $9 million, ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution to his victims and sent to prison for five years. Rocancourt is believed to have made at least $40 million from his numerous schemes.

Never Ever Was Land

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Gregor MacGregor must have been a very convincing con man in his day. After all, how many people can persuade colonists to invest in and set sail for a country that doesn’t actually exist?

MacGregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer who fought in the South American struggle for independence in the early eighteenth century. When he returned to Britain in 1820, MacGregorclaimed to be cazique, kind of the equivalent to a prince, of Poyais, a Central American country that existed purely in his own imagination. According to MacGregor, Poyais was located on an island off the Mosquito Coast of what is now Honduras. He even created a guidebook for investors, describing the area’s abundant natural resources, geography and wonderful living conditions.

MacGregor gained the trust, and more importantly the cash, of his eager investors and would-be colonists. Around 250 of them set sail across the Atlantic, only to find empty ocean instead of their promised tropical paradise Many of them succumbed to tropical diseases, but like a true con man, MacGregor was undeterred.  Even after his trial and conviction for fraud, MacGregor continued with his scams, selling non-existent land and stock to members of the European nobility who seemed only to willing to part with their money. Macgregor died in Caracas, Venezuela in 1845, not that far from where he always claimed the fictitious island of Poyais had been situated.

Counterfeit Carnegie

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Although she was born as Elizabeth Bigley, the woman later known as Cassie Chadwick achieved notoriety by defrauding banks in the Cleveland area by claiming to be an illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. She ran a number of scams, but began her most famous one in 1897, when she faked a promissory note of $2 million with Carnegie’s signature. When financial markets in northern Ohio picked up this information, banks begun to offer their services to someone who seemed to be a very good risk indeed.

For the next eight years, Cassie made great use of her counterfeit background to obtain loans. It’s estimated she made between $10 and $20 million. It seems remarkable that she remained undetected for so long, especially since her success was based on a fake relationship to a very well known public figure. Cassie wasn’t able to stay ahead of the law forever though. Eventually Carnegie himself was asked about his remarkable relative. When Carnegie denied ever having known Cassie, her scheme collapsed. She was arrested and later died in prison. No doubt her long-lost fake father never visited her while she was in jail.

The Great Imposter

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Ferdinand Demara must have had trouble remembering his true identity, since he masqueraded as so many other people during his notorious career. Demara joined the U.S. Army in 1941, but posed as Anthony Ignolia, then faked his own suicide, took the name Robert Linton French, and became a psychologist. He was eventually caught and spent 18 months in prison.

Undeterred, Demara decided to try a few more careers, all of which were fake. He worked as a civil engineer, a hospital orderly, a sheriff’s deputy, an assistant prison warden, a Benedictine monk, a doctor of applied psychology, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. One stint at teaching led to another term in prison, this time for six months.

Demara’s most famous role was as surgeon Joseph Cyr on the Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War. Demara clearly had enough acting talent and confidence to carry out his earlier masquerades. However, taking on the identity of a working surgeon, when you actually have no medical skills, would seem to be extremely foolish, to say the least. And yet, Demara somehow managed to improvise successful surgeries and avoid infection by giving his unsuspecting patients lots of penicillin. His pseudo-career lasted until the mother of the actual Dr. Joseph Cyr heard about Demara and notified the authorities. The 1960 film The Great Imposter was loosely based on Demara’s exploits.

A Real Life Fairy Tale

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Way back in 1817, a cobbler in England met a confused young woman, who was wearing strange exotic clothes and spoke an unintelligible language. The local people invited foreigners to the area to try and decipher the woman’s speech, until finally a Portuguese sailor managed to translate her words for all to hear. The woman was apparently called Princess Caraboo, who hailed from the faraway island of Javasu, located in the Indian Ocean. She claimed to have been captured by pirates, but escaped by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel and swimming ashore. The brave princess had her portrait painted and this appeared in local newspapers. Her exotic origins were reinforced when she used a bow and arrow, swam naked and prayed to Allah Tallah.

However, Princess Caraboo was not all that she seemed. He true identity was Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Devon. Mary had worked as a servant in various parts of England, but had never really settled anywhere. She decided to create her exotic secret identity and her foreign language was actually made up of gypsy words and others she simply made up. Mary’s story inspired the 1994 movie Princess Caraboo.

A Towering Reputation

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Victor Lustig was a talented and charming conman, who was fluent in many different languages. He first worked scams on clients traveling from Europe to New York on ocean liners. His money printing machine con was particularly successful. Lustig would demonstrate his remarkable box to unsuspecting customers, making sure each time that he complained that it took six hours to copy a $100 bill. Thinking they could get rich quick, clients would eagerly buy the machine, sometimes for up to $30,000 each. This must have seemed like a huge bargain, when compared to how much money you could literally just make. The machine would produce two more $100 bills in the next twelve hours. However, it then only produced blank paper, as the supply of $100 bills was used up. At this point, the customer would realize they’d been conned, but Lustig of course was long gone, with all their real cash.

In 1925, Lustig read a newspaper article about the problems of maintaining the Eiffel Tower. This gave him the idea to pretend to be a government official, looking to sell the landmark monument for scrap. Lustig actually succeeded in selling the Eiffel Tower to a scrap metal dealer, who was apparently too embarrassed at his own stupidity to complain to the police. Meanwhile, Lustig took a nice train ride to Vienna with a suitcase full of money. 

In the United States, Lustig even managed to con Al Capone. He convinced the notorious gangster to trust him with $40,000 to invest in a stock market deal. Lustig simply kept the money in a safe deposit box for two months, then returned the cash to Capone, telling him that the deal had fallen through. Capone was apparently so impressed with Lustig’s honesty that he gave him $5000, which of course was all that Lustig had been after in the first place. Eventually Lustig’s luck ran out and he was arrested for counterfeiting. He was sent to Alcatraz, where his old chum Al Capone also once spent some time, and died in 1947.

Super Salesman

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Not interested in buying the Eiffel Tower? Looking to buy a bridge instead? How about a museum or the tomb of one of the nation’s leading historical figures? Perhaps you’d even want to put in an offer on the Statue of Liberty? If the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, then back in the early decades of the twentieth century, George Parker was your man.

Parker is renowned for his success in selling many of New York’s most famous landmarks to highly gullible tourists. His sales included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Madison Square Garden, the Statue of Liberty, and Grant’s Tomb, for which purpose he would pose as General Grant’s grandson, who presumably would be a more convincing seller of the family mausoleum. Parker had a phony office that handled all his crooked business deals, making him even more believable. He also had a collection of very realistic forged documents, stating that he was the legal owner of whatever he was selling at the time. Parker sold the Brooklyn Bridge at least twice a week for years, convincing his victims that they’d make a fortune by charging tolls. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have ever been taken in by such a scheme, yet on more than one occasion, police officers had to remove people trying to erect barriers on the bridge to control access and regulate traffic on their new property. Parker was convicted of fraud three times and in 1928 was sentenced to life term in Sing Sing Prison, which he apparently didn’t attempt to sell to anyone. Parker spent the last eight years of his life in jail and died in 1936. 

About The Author

Simon Rose is the author of The Alchemist’s Portrait, The Sorcerer’s Letterbox, The Clone Conspiracy, The Emerald Curse, The Heretic’s Tomb, The Doomsday Mask and The Time Camera, plus many non-fiction books and articles.

 

 

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Jim cook has been in the financial sector for over 10 years. Specialising in the payday loan sector.

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