One of the biggest forged art scams in history resulted in roughly $80 million being spent on “fake” paintings. So the world of scam art is a booming business if you can pull it off. But art is far from the only industry where you can fake someone out and earn big money in the process. People will sell fake anything and everything if they think they can get away with it. And a good number of them do.
10. Nigerian Scammers Sold a Fake Airport for Over $200 Million
Selling a fake painting is one thing. You can have someone paint it, make it look real enough, frame it and then physically give it to the person you’re scamming. If you did a good enough job on your forgery, it’ll fool your buyer and they’ll hand over the cash. This makes sense and is easy to understand. Now imagine trying to do that with an airport.
In the mid ’90s, three men from Nigeria pulled off a staggering scam in which they convinced a senior bank official from Brazil to use funds from his bank to invest in their new airport. In exchange, he would earn a tidy $10 million commission. Does any of this sound familiar to you? Someone from a foreign land promising a huge financial opportunity at no risk to you and, in return, you take home millions! Yeah, it’s basically the same Nigerian Prince email scam everyone got 25 years ago, only so much bigger. Also, it worked.
The banker funneled a whopping $242 million from his bank to a variety of different accounts around the world. In a surprise twist that probably only surprised him, there was no airport, the whole thing was fake.
The scammers bought multiple properties with their scammed money and lived the high life until they were caught, convicted, and had their assets given to the bank.
9. Up to 30% of Pharmaceuticals Sold in Developing Nations are Fake
In a lot of places around the world, access to medication is limited. This is true in poorer countries and richer ones. Americans have some of the worst markups for pharmaceuticals anywhere in the world and, for many people, the alternative of buying medicine online from another country seems like a great option. And it probably is, if you get what you pay for. The problem is that as much as 30% of the pharmaceuticals sold around the world are fake.
According to the World Health Organization, the counterfeit drug market is worth $30 billion. This has also resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Even in developed countries, one in ten drugs being sold is not the real deal.
Many of the victims are in developing nations however, in particular in Africa where thousands of African children have died because of getting scam medication for pneumonia or malaria.
So what qualifies as a fake drug? Sometimes it is the real medication but in the wrong dose. Sometimes it’s a different drug and sometimes it’s just nothing at all, maybe a sugar pill or some other placebo with no active ingredients. Point is that they don’t work and they can get people killed.
8. A Man Made Millions Selling Fake Bomb Detectors
The military seems to have bottomless pockets but scamming them has to be something done with nerves of steel, you would think. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. Some people have pulled off remarkable scams, like James McCormick. He made £50 million by selling fake bomb detectors, mostly in the Middle East.
McCormick is believed to have sold around 7,000 ADE-651 bomb detecting devices over a period of years. These could be used at various checkpoints and in secure facilities to detect an explosive to keep people safe. That was the scam, anyway. In reality, the machines were slightly repurposed golf ball finders that did nothing at all.
The golf ball finder was a novelty toy that cost $20. It had a cheap antenna on it that was supposed to move when it detected “elements” in a golf ball, using the same a dowsing rod supposedly detects water. It’s just the unconscious and involuntary movements of the person holding it. There were no real working electronics or science involved at all.
Aside from the stunning amount of money McCormick made selling these scam detectors, the other remarkable aspect of the story was that some places were still using them, even years after the scam was revealed.
7. Fake Pepper Made of Mud Was Sold in China
In 2022, real saffron could cost you as much as $10,000 per kilogram so there’s some precedent for the spice trade being a valuable one. But saffron is a relatively rare spice and one most people don’t have on their counter. It has to be harvested by hand and you can’t grow the crocuses that produce it just anywhere.
Pepper, on the other hand, is one of the most common spices in the world. Salt and pepper are the ubiquitous seasonings on nearly every table in the West. It’s made from ground up peppercorns and it’s a relatively inexpensive spice in much of the western world.
Despite how cheap and abundant it seems, if you can get away with selling fake pepper it’s even cheaper and more abundant. In China it’s been reported that some pepper sold in markets was just dried up mud. In a fun twist, the seller didn’t care that they’d been caught out and said it was no big deal because mud wasn’t going to kill anyone.
6. The Cellular Phoney Was a Fake Car Phone Sold in the ’80s
Gather ‘round, children, for we’re about to talk about the olden times. Once, some decades ago, there was no such thing as a cell phone. If you wanted to call someone, you had a little box with numbers on it attached to the wall of your house by a wire. It was a telephone, and it was the only way to call someone. If you wanted to text, you had to write it on paper and send it in the mail.
Around the time that big, clunky wireless phones first appeared, so too did car phones. For a time they were more popular since wireless phones were the size of milk cartons. But they were not for the average driver. In 1987, a car phone might set you back around $1,400. That would be about $3,700 in 2023.
For the 1980s clout chaser who wanted to look rich and important there was the fake car phone called the Cellular Phoney. It looked exactly like a car phone but it did nothing; it was just a replica. They sold for $16, or $9.95 if you found a sale. The company sold about 40,000 of them, mostly in Los Angeles where people love to play pretend.
5. Fake Amazon Listings Were Used to Scam Walmart Out of PS4s
Some people shop like it’s a life or death mission and getting the best deal possible is the goal. They will cross town and even go to other cities for the best deals. They’ll collect coupons and wait for double coupon days to ravage a store and scour its shelves clean. And they’ll also price match.
Price matching is a simple concept where a store tries to keep your business by selling things you might want to go to another store to get for the same price. You bring in a flyer from the competition that has a better deal, they’ll match the deal. Easy for you because you don’t need to travel, easy for the store because they made the sale and maybe you buy a bunch of other stuff, too.
Walmart learned the hard way that this policy can be exploited by scammers. When Walmart offered to price match online retails for the PS4, people started showing up with fake Amazon listings selling the gaming system for as low as $90 and even $50 in some cases. So Walmart had to sell the normally $400 system for the same price.
Eventually the company clued in and dropped the price match policy for sites like Amazon.
4. Rolling Stone Made a Fake Supergroup That Sold 100,000 Records
Back in 1969 an album was released by the band The Masked Marauders. Members included Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan. It was, arguably, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll supergroup ever. It was also total BS. The band, and the article about them in Rolling Stone magazine, was made up. It was a piece of satire that was published in a magazine not really known for satire, so not everyone read it that way.
The idea started when one of the magazine’s writers, sick of supersession albums, wrote a fake review of an album that never existed. For fun, he showed it to his editor who thought it was great. So they published it.
The album became huge, which is to say everyone wanted it but of course no one could get it because it never existed. But as desire grew, Rolling Stone took it a step further. They recorded the album. A band called the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band was hired to do impressions of the more famous musicians. Warner Brothers distributed it and they managed to sell 100,000 copies.
The liner notes to the album gave away the joke but, of course, you had to buy the album first to get that far. The chairman of the FCC apparently called the whole thing obscene.
3. The Hitler Diaries Sold For Millions Before They Were Outed as Forgeries
Back in the 1980s, the secret diaries of Adolf Hitler were published, and it was a groundbreaking discovery right up until it wasn’t. Stern magazine paid the equivalent of $3.75 million for the diaries and published them in 1983.
The diaries were authenticated by a British historian and then, about a week later, they were proven to be forgeries. Forensic testing proved the ink to be new, the paper was wrong and the handwriting itself was not accurate. There were also historical inaccuracies included in the works which helped send the forger to jail. The magazine, however, was forced to issue an embarrassing retraction for their overzealous mistake.
2. A ’90s Scammer Sold $50 Clothesline as Solar Powered Clothes Dryers
Sometimes a scam can still be technically legit, just in a way that pleases no one except the guy making all the money. That was the case with Steve Comisar, who sold solar powered clothes dryers through classified ads in the ’90s that only cost customers $50. He made $2 million before he was shut down.
So what was the scam? Comisar mailed everyone who paid him a length of clothesline. A scientifically proven way to use solar power to dry clothes. Needless to say, his customers were angry, but they were not “technically” ripped off. He kept the money, he just wasn’t allowed to sell any more.
Comisar would later go on to bigger and more complex scams and was apparently once known as the Jeffrey Dahmer of fraud.
1. Walmart Sold Fake Craft Beer
Craft beer has been around for quite a while but really gained some popularity in the 2010s. Plenty of companies with goofy names came out of the woodwork to sell traditional and non-traditional craft beers alike, and they were cutting into the market for some of the bigger breweries. In an effort to capitalize on this, Walmart started selling its own craft beer. Except it was a fake.
Walmart’s beer was supposedly made by Trouble Brewery, only they didn’t really exist. The beer was actually brewed by WX Brands, which is actually Genesee Brewing, a Costa Rican brewery known for the Genesee brand of cheap college beers. So, in reality, their craft beer was just mass market beer that had been mislabeled, which is technically not allowed.