Being a confidence man takes a lot of brass, as they say. To be able to look a person in the eye, lie to them, and scam them out of their time, money, and trust is not a thing just anyone can do. And when a con artist can do it to multiple people for massive amounts of money based on the most egregious of lies, well, that’s something else altogether. And yet people still do it. Sometimes these cons become so big and so out of hand they’re almost unbelievable. Almost…
10. Frederic Bourdin Pretended to be Children
Frederic Bourdin left a trail of scams across Europe and in the United States. When he was 31, he managed to convince school officials and students that he was an abused 15-year-old orphan for an entire month while he attended classes and made friends. He serially traveled from country to country and more often than not pretended to be a teenage boy.
More puzzling than the scam itself is the fact Bourdin didn’t seem to do it for any reason. He was getting money from people; he wasn’t preying on the other children around him. It was just a con for the sake of the con. He said of himself that he’s a manipulator and he even has a tattoo on his arm that reads “Chameleon from Nantes,” which is the name of the town where he grew up.
His scam in Spain, where he was playing the orphan, only came to an end when a school official happened to see a TV show about Bourdin and recognized his face.
Years earlier, when he was 23, Bourdin had successfully pretended to be someone’s missing 16-year-old son, even though he had different colored eyes and a French accent. He lived with the parents of the missing boy for months before a DNA test forced on him by the FBI (who feared he was a spy) revealed his scam.
9. The First International Bank of Grenada
No matter how much money you try to scam from another person, you’re still just a person getting money from other people, and that’s always an uphill battle. Van Brink realized this, so he thought to scam bigger. And what’s bigger than a person, but is still able to get money? A bank. So he made up a bank.
In 1997, Brink purchased a license to open his own bank in Grenada. He convinced the government where he’d just bought citizenship that he was legit by claiming he owned a giant ruby, complete with photos and an appraisal value of $20 million. To be clear, the ruby did exist, but it was not his. Despite that, and with assurances of another $26 billion in assets, the bank was formed and within a year they listed assets of $14 billion.
In truth, the bank had managed to scam investors out of $170 million. The bank claimed to have insurance, of course, but that was issued by another fake company. Investors were promised high interest rates but in reality Brink and associates were just buying luxury items, and using investments from new investors to pay fake interest to older investors, all until the scam collapsed.
Brink escaped to Uganda, denying wrongdoing the whole time. He was eventually charged but died of a heart attack while awaiting trial.
8. Victor Lustig Sold the Eiffel Tower Twice
A good con artist has to be able to gain a person’s trust. A great con artist can get their faith. That is, they can make you believe the impossible. Like how Victor Lustig somehow convinced people that he not only owned the Eiffel Tower, but that he was willing to sell it to them. And he did it twice.
In 1925, the French government was lamenting the poor condition of the Eiffel Tower and apparently one official made an offhand remark to a newspaper about selling it for scrap. Lustig read this and put a plan into action.
He had counterfeit stationary made up listing him as a government official and invited local scrap dealers to meet him. He told the dealers that the tower, which was never meant to be permanent, was being torn down and whoever had the best bid for the 7,000 tons of scrap could claim it all. At the same time, he assured his favorite target among the dealers that if they greased the wheels, the contract would be theirs.
Bribe in hand, Lustig left the country and waited for news of the scam being revealed. It never happened, likely due to the embarrassment of his victim preventing them from coming forward. So Lustig did what any successful scammer would do: he went back to France and pulled the same scam a second time with new victims.
When he fled this time, his victim reported the crime but Lustig was already in the United States
7. Arthur Furguson Sold Landmarks In England and America
Turns out 1925 was a big year for landmarks because, while Victor Lustig was selling the Eiffel Tower in France, Scotsman Arthur Ferguson had managed to sell Nelson’s Column, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace to American tourists visiting London. He later went to the US and sold the White House to a Texas rancher and the Statue of Liberty to an Australian.
Naturally you’d wonder how anyone could believe these things were for sale, but Ferguson was nothing if not persuasive. In England he explained that, since the end of the First World War, the government was in dire need of new cash. Americans, he realized, were not as familiar with the ins and outs of how things works so they’d be easier marks. And they were.
He never sold the landmarks outright. Instead, he took deposits. A few thousand dollars here or there, which was all he needed. Especially when he could repeat the scam again and again, selling the same buildings to different people.
Most victims were too embarrassed to tell police, which allowed Ferguson to continue his scamming. It was only when the Australian looking to buy the Statue of Liberty took too long to get the funds and grew suspicious of Ferguson’s impatience that he was finally caught.
6. Mary Bateman’s Prophetic Chicken
Harry Houdini famously targeted scammers who preyed on the faith and beliefs of certain victims by claiming they could speak to the dead or the divine. Some of these scammers just pretend to channel from the beyond, but Mary Bateman tried to take it to another level by offering what seemed, at first, like irrefutable proof. She had a chicken that laid eggs with messages from God on them. Not bad, huh?
In 1806, Mary claimed one of her chickens laid an egg with the words “Crist is coming” clearly visible in the shell. Typo notwithstanding, it was stunning. Especially for a woman whose claim to fame up to that point had been committing a string of poorly planned robberies in which she was caught every time.
Word soon spread and people traveled to her farm where they paid a penny a piece to see the miracle chicken and its eggs. She was also offering people official seals to ensure they’d make it to the right side of the Rapture, which were apparently just slips of paper on which she’d written “JC.”
A suspicious visitor soon realized the scam when he exposed Bateman for using simple chemistry and a somewhat grisly determination to pull off her miracles. She would take the eggs and write her message on them in vinegar, which would weaken the shell enough to make the letters visible. Then she jammed the eggs back in the chicken, forcing them to lay them a second time where witnesses could see. The stranger simply hid near her barn early in the morning and watched her do it.
5. Joseph Prushinowski was Called the Hasidic Robin Hood
Is there such a thing as a good scammer? If there is, then Joseph Prushinowski surely counts. For 20 years he committed various frauds despite being a Hasidic rabbi, which most people would have assumed would prohibit him from such crimes.
Prushinowski ran multiple scams over the years that netted him millions of dollars. He managed to wait out the statute of limitations on many, but others still followed him when he was finally arrested in 1998. Part of the reason he was able to elude capture so long – long enough to get him featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries – was the help he received. He didn’t keep the money he stole for himself, you see; he distributed it among Orthodox Jewish communities and they protected him for it. All told it’s believed he scammed around $190 million.
4. Anthony Gignac Pretended to Be a Saudi Prince
Saudi princes still get in the news these days, and it’s generally well known that they’re pretty wealthy. So it’s sort of understandable why Anthony Gignac wanted to pretend to be one. It was a scam to dupe people into thinking he was already wealthy, granting him access and opportunity.
Despite being arrested nearly a dozen times for scams in which he pretended to be royalty, he escalated his scam to the tune of $8 million in fraud over several years. Inexplicably, this was all chronicled on Instagram where he showed off private jets, expensive jewelry, art, and more. He even made up fake diplomatic plates for his Ferrari.
The scam involved using this fake persona to secure investment money, which he of course spent on himself. His scam crumbled during an attempt to defraud some Miami hotel owners when they watched him eating pork, something a Muslim prince would not do, and hired an investigator to look into him.
3. John Keely’s Fake Engine
For years people have been looking for newer, better power sources. John Ernst Worrell Keely’s scam promised just that. In 1872, he claimed to have created a powerful engine that harnessed sympathetic vibratory physics, whatever that meant, and essentially made energy from nothing. He raised $10,000 in a year.
Dubbed the Etheric Force Machine, Keely kept putting off explaining said machines because, of course, they were fake. But he still built thousands of them and gave fake demonstrations that people couldn’t investigate too closely. The machines broke ropes, bent bars; did all kinds of random, powerful things. By 1880 he had 3,000 investors but none had their hands on an engine.
After his death, people raided his lab and took the machines apart, where it was discovered any effects they produced were made by compressed air.
2. David Stein Painted Same Day Art Forgeries
If you want to forge art, you need to be a hell of a painter in a way that seems like you should be able to succeed based on your talent. But life isn’t fair sometimes, and talent often goes unrecognized. David Stein surely felt that way when he decided to paint three fake Chagall paintings and then sell them to an art dealer.
Stein’s scam was to present himself as a rep from a place like Sotheby’s and let people know they had new art coming up for sale soon. Stuff from modern masters who were at their peak in the 1960s and ’70s. Stein could get you a painting that would probably sell for millions for maybe $800,000.
In truth, Stein would sell a painting then immediately go home and actually paint it himself. He was so good that apparently Picasso himself authenticated a fake made by Stein. But it was Marc Chagall that was his downfall.
Stein had arranged to sell three Chagalls to an art dealer. He woke up at 6 a.m. on the day they were due and had all three painted by 11. He framed them, made fake certificates of authenticity, and sold them for $10,500. Then the real Marc Chagall coincidentally came to the gallery, saw them, and Stein’s scam ended.
1. Eduardo de Valfierno May Have Masterminded the Mona Lisa Theft
The Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, one of the greatest art heists in history. It was a whole day before anyone realized what happened. The news spread around the globe and at one point police even hauled in Pablo Picasso as a suspect. In truth, a house painter named Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen it and was caught two years later trying to sell it in Italy. But the story may not end there, and perhaps one of the most amazing art scams ever was happening at the same time.
During the time the Mona Lisa was missing, a man named Eduardo de Valfierno claims to have had six forgeries painted, each of which he sold to gullible millionaires. They could have only ever believed they were buying the real Mona Lisa if the real Mona Lisa was missing, so de Valfierno arranged for the theft to take place and made tens of millions in the process. His victims would never be able to come forward lest they out themselves as both gullible fools and also potential criminals.
Is the story true? Evidence is scant, but shouldn’t that be the case with a good scam?