Sneakiest Fraudsters Of All Time
Let's explore the sneakiest fraudsters of all time!Stories
Unfortunately, there will always be people that get their kicks from exploiting others. Sometimes, these scammers are obvious, but some fraudsters are so devious that even you could get sucked into their sordid schemes.
From a fraudster who sold a stranger’s house without their knowledge, to a fake princess who swindled thousands from members of the public, let’s take a look at some of the sneakiest, and most outrageous, fraudsters of all time.
If you own a house, you’ll know how scary it can be to leave it unoccupied for long periods of time. One unlucky man in Luton, England, knows this all too well. Reverend Mike Hall was away working in North Wales back in August 2021 when he received a terrifying call from his neighbors. They’d seen a stranger in his house!
After a frantic drive home the following morning, Mike arrived at his property to confront the mystery guest. But when he got there, he discovered something far worse than a break-in. Upon trying his keys in the door, they no longer worked. The door opened, and he was greeted by a builder, who said he was busy working on renovations for “the new homeowner”.
Pushing the builder out of the way, the incredulous reverend discovered that his property had been completely gutted of all his belongings! Even the plaster on the walls had been stripped, along with the curtains and all the furnishings.
Things surely couldn’t get any worse, right? Wrong. Next thing he knew, the “new homeowners’” father arrived on the scene and demanded Mike leave his own house for trespassing! Talk about twisting the knife!
Mike immediately called the police, but when they arrived, they didn’t even believe a crime had been committed. In fact, they agreed with the intruders and ordered Mike to leave the property! What was going on? Well, it turns out that the Reverend’s identity was stolen by a fraudster, who’d cloned his driving license and set up a bank account in his name.
Then, he'd sold Mike’s house while posing as him, and banked the proceeds for himself. And because he’d gone through all the legal processes, the new buyers legally possessed the house, leaving Mike in a very sticky situation.
This lucrative fraud is becoming increasingly common, with victims claiming millions of dollars in compensation every year. Often, it’s organized by criminal networks, who work together to dupe both real estate agents and legal workers. But how on earth do they pull it off?
Firstly, these pesky criminals do anything they can to get hold of your personal data. They might pose as lawyers and send fake emails, hack into your accounts, or even rifle through your mail! Then, once they’ve got the information they need, the thieves can sneakily acquire identity-related documents with it and use them to claim the titles to your home!
It’s definitely an ambitious scheme, but if they manage to successfully sell the stolen house, the scammers can make some serious coin before vanishing with it. In fact, Mike’s house was sold for around a whopping $154,000!
Don’t worry though, you can prevent this from happening. Head online, and you should be able to sign up for a free property alert service. This will notify you of any activity related to your property, like a suspicious application to change ownership details. And you can even enter a restriction on the title deeds, which means no sale or mortgage can go through unless a conveyancer or solicitor makes it crystal clear that you’ve approved it.
Despite precautions though, it’s always possible for things to slip through the cracks. Luckily, if you do end up the victim of this crime, you can often reclaim your property through legal support.
Though, it seems poor Mike hasn’t had much luck so far, as of the posting of this article, the new residents are still the legal homeowners! However, there’s at least some justice in this story. In November 2021, police confirmed they’d arrested a suspect. So, here’s hoping our boy Mike gets his home back!
We’ve all heard the story of Jesus turning water into wine, but in 1983 a guy in China claimed he could do one better. Wang Hongcheng, a bus driver from the city of Harbin, claimed he could turn regular water into gasoline with just a few drops of his ‘special liquid’.
Hongcheng claimed the liquid was so powerful that it could help China become the biggest oil provider in the world, knocking the Middle East from the top spot. Naturally, people were pretty interested, and the story made national news!
But how does a bus driver with no scientific training create a magic liquid so transformative that it could build an empire? Well, he doesn’t. He just lied through his teeth about it. And was he good at lying!
Before long, Hongcheng had convinced a whole host of eager investors to fund his crazy venture, including government agencies! In total, they dumped almost $37 million into it!
After managing to successfully push his charade for almost a decade though, Hongcheng hit a major stumbling block in 1994. A member of the National Science Committee got in touch and invited him for a proper appraisal of the wonder liquid!
Of course, Hongcheng refused. But that didn’t exactly sit well with all his investors, and after a police investigation Hongcheng was finally found guilty of fraud and deceit in 1998 and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Even so, Hongcheng’s audacious antics have made him something of a legend in Chinese popular culture to this day!
The Lie-Ful Tower
Everyone knows working in sales can be a tough gig, but back in the 1920s one notoriously slimy salesman was so conniving he probably could’ve sold honey to a bee. His name was Victor Lustig, and he managed to successfully sell none other than the Eiffel Tower. Or, at least, he successfully pretended to sell it.
At the time of the wild ruse, in 1925, the conman was already one of the most prolific of his era. In fact, he’d been arrested over 40 times, and was wanted by police across the globe. So, when Lustig read an article about the deteriorating condition of the Eiffel Tower, he saw only one thing: opportunity.
Under the guise of a government official, he contacted the most prominent scrap metal dealers in the country and told them that the famous monument was being demolished and sold off for scraps! And guess what? They swallowed the story hook, line, and sinker.
After renting a room in one of Paris’s most upscale hotels, Lustig continued to pose as an official and met with each of the dealers to ascertain which would be the easiest to hustle. It wasn’t long before he made a decision: Andre Poisson, who was fairly new to the city.
Poisson bit and ended up sending Lustig a whopping $70,000 in return for the so-called scrap metal. That’s over $1.1 million in today’s money! Only, after Lustig received the money, he darted back to Austria, and Poisson was so embarrassed that he never even reported the crime!
Realizing he’d gotten away scot-free, Lustig continued his deceitful scams for another decade. Eventually however, his luck ran out, and the daring deceiver was sent to Alcatraz prison in 1935, where he later died. On his death certificate, his official occupation was listed as “apprentice salesman”. Sure, that’s one way of putting it!
The Baker Bust
Most of us have dreamt at some point or another of finding out we’re the heir to a long-lost fortune. In the 1920s, this dream became a reality for many Americans across the US, though, it turned out to be more of a nightmare for them.
It all started when mysterious newspaper ads began cropping up, asking anyone with the surname “Baker” to get in touch. Apparently, a wealthy aristocrat named Jacob Baker had died back in 1839 and left an estate worth billions of dollars behind that nobody had claimed!
The ad was placed by a supposed lawyer called William Smith, and it asked Bakers across the country to pay him a small fee so he could fight the legal battle to secure their inheritance. Before long, Bakers from all over the nation were getting in touch with Smith to secure their part of the huge inheritance. And every single one paid their fee.
The only problem? Well, there was no inheritance. There wasn’t even a Jacob Baker, he was entirely made up, an invention of Smith’s mind! Incredibly, Smith managed to spin the scam for 12 years, and racked up a stupendous $25 million before the police finally caught him in 1936.
Altogether, the conman had duped a whopping 50,000 people, making him one of the most far-reaching fraudsters of all time. It just goes to show you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers!
There’s a lot of swindlers out there. But you have to be a special type of crook to have a scam literally named after you. Ever heard of a Ponzi scheme? It’s a type of investment fraud, and it’s named after Italian con-man Charles Ponzi.
Ponzi was an immigrant who barely had three dollars in his pocket when he first arrived in the States in 1903 yet by July 1920, he was bringing in almost a million dollars a day. So, how did he do it? Well, after a decade of odd jobs and petty crimes, one day Ponzi received a letter from a Spanish company containing an international reply coupon. Basically, this coupon could be traded for postage stamps from another country.
Ponzi realized that he could buy these coupons in one country, trade them for more expensive stamps in another country, then sell the stamps and pocket a tasty profit. But that still wasn’t making him enough money. So, to make even more, he started roping in investors, promising them 100% profit in just 90 days.
He wasn’t actually making anywhere near the kind of money needed to pay them back. However, as the scheme attracted more and more investors, he began using the new investors’ cash to pay off his original investors, and the cycle continued.
Like this, Ponzi raked in a whopping $15 million in just eight months! Bear in mind, this would be almost $220 million today! And he sure didn’t skimp out with his newfound fortune, spending it on a huge 12-room mansion, a host of servants, and even an entire bank!
Unfortunately for Ponzi, the glory days didn’t last. After a lengthy investigation, he was found guilty of mail fraud and jailed, but only for 3 ½ years! He served his time, moved to Florida, then, believe it or not, came up with a new scam, selling swampland under the guise of “prime Florida property”.
Imagine thinking you’d bought a beautiful spot in Florida and then turning up to a wasteland. The only thing scarier than all the alligators would be Ponzi himself, if he didn’t look so darned dapper all the time.
Real Estate Ruse
I don’t know about you, but my guilty pleasure is looking at houses I can’t afford. What would you do though if one day you were browsing property sites and came across your own home, posted by somebody you didn’t know? Which is what New Jersey homeowner Kerry Brady did in 2021 when this exact scenario happened to her!
But Kerry wasn’t about to let herself fall victim to a scam. So, she decided to call the phony seller herself and pose as a potential buyer, while recording the whole conversation! What she uncovered was extremely alarming.
The fraudster told Kerry that they’d recently inherited the house and were selling it because they’d realized it was “far too big for them”. If Kerry wanted it, she could have it for $1.7 million, which was significantly more than it was actually worth. Kerry pushed on, asking more questions, but the con artist couldn’t even answer the most basic ones!
And when Kerry asked to view the property, they snapped back with a million excuses as to why they couldn’t give a tour. The worst part is that the imposter told Kerry they weren’t local, but after a successful sale would send someone round to change all of the locks! At that point Kerry hung up and, fearing for her family’s safety, paid to get her locks changed immediately.
She reported the listing, and it was taken down. But to her disbelief, it popped up again just five days later! Thankfully, the police got involved and it was eventually removed for good, stopping the crook in their tracks.
Thankfully, they definitely weren’t one of the sneakiest fraudsters ever, just a wannabe. But it goes to show a bit of sneaky sleuthing can save yourself a lot of trouble down the line! I guess you could say Kerry addressed the issue.
The Prince of Poyais
Sometimes, when life’s getting you down, all you want is a fresh start. Nineteenth century Scottish adventurer and con-man Gregor MacGregor knew this all too well and he exploited the heck out of it.
In 1820, MacGregor traveled to Central America’s Mosquito Coast and got a native king there so drunk that he signed over 8 million acres of land to him.
If you hadn’t guessed by the name though, the Mosquito Coast was not somewhere you’d want to live. In fact, the piece of land MacGregor had acquired was nothing more than swampy, insect-infested jungle! But MacGregor had a devious plan.
With the deeds to his newly acquired hellhole in pocket, he headed to London, England. There, he went forth proclaiming that he was a Prince from the prosperous tropical nation of “Poyais”.
Using falsified evidence, including a national flag, pictures, and even currency, he convinced people that this new nation was real. London was going through a recession at the time, so many of its inhabitants were hugely excited at the prospect of moving away to begin life anew.
All they had to do was give their possessions to MacGregor in return for land in Poyais, and a brighter future. But, of course, MacGregor wasn’t a prince, and Poyais was a complete fabrication.
After investing their life savings into the trip, the would-be settlers traveled by boat for two long months and were shocked when they finally got there.
Far from a tropical paradise, it was a tropical deathbed, grossly unfit for anybody to live on. What’s more, the conned emigrants were left to fend for themselves in the disease-ridden hellscape! They erected ramshackle huts and tried to survive, but by the time a British ship came to their rescue two months later, less than 100 of the original 250 people were left.
And if you think MacGregor paid the price for his terrible scam, think again! He left England and continued his schemes for another decade, before peacefully retiring in Venezuela. I reckon he only did it all because he was angry at having such a silly name.
Amazingly, Gregor MacGregor isn’t the only guy guilty of fibbing to entice settlers into a country for his own gain. Another, similar hoax was also pulled off in the Viking Era, around 982AD, by Norse explorer and PR genius Erik the Red.
After being exiled from Iceland for“some killings”, Erik sailed off for foreign lands. Classic Viking behavior, then. On his adventures, the Norseman discovered a mysterious island, and spent the duration of his exile there exploring it. It was a lot icier than Iceland, but there was still potential on the island for settlement.
So, after his exile was up, Erik decided to return to Iceland to boast of his discovery and argue that people should settle there. Only, how do you convince a people from somewhere called Iceland to go somewhere even icier?
Well, you give the place a warmer-sounding name, of course. If you hadn’t guessed yet, the “mysterious island” is Greenland! By naming it Greenland instead of Snowland or something, Erik was able to bring back enough men with him to create two colonies!
Was it disingenuous of him? Yes. But ol’ Erik the Red didn’t lead hundreds of people to their doom like MacGregor did, so I’d say he’s the better of the two fraudsters. And now you know how Greenland got its name.
College is a blast if you can afford it. For many students though, the endless socializing ends up eating a great big hole in their wallets. However, Syed Arbab, a student from the University of Georgia, had no such problem. Because between 2018 and 2019, this clever frat boy convinced at least eight people to pour money into a fraudulent hedge fund that he ran out of his fraternity house.
It was essentially a Ponzi scheme; Arbab promised his investors he’d use their money in the stock market and make them huge profits through legitimate means. In reality, he’d just be paying them using newer investors’ money.
At first, he actually seemed to be following up on these promises, and people were very happy with their investments. Word got around, and when one student’s older sister decided she wanted to try her hand at investing, her brother knew just the guy to go to, good ol’ Arbab, right?
After investing over $45,000 into Arbab’s fund however, she only received a measly $600 back! And somebody else invested even more, a shocking $100,000. He also only got a tiny sum of it back in return.
As it transpired, Arbab’s “fund” was really just being used to finance his wild lifestyle! He’d splashed over $250,000 of it on gambling binges in Las Vegas, huge bar tabs, and, you know, all the other fun things frat boys love to do. Safe to say, Arbab was taken to court and suspended from his fraternity. I guess what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
Lies ‘n’ Landmarks
Remember our old friend Victor Lustig, the guy who sold the Eiffel Tower? Well, 40 years before Lustig, in the 1880s, there lived New Yorker George C. Parker. He was a swindler much like Lustig, but unlike Lustig, he didn’t just profess to sell one landmark, he “sold” all sorts!
Parker made heaps of cash from tricking people into thinking they were buying Madison Square Garden, the Statue of Liberty, and, most famously, the Brooklyn Bridge from him!
In fact, he reportedly “sold” the bridge at least twice a week for up to 40 years, and once for as much as $50,000, a colossal $1.5 million today.
His ploy? First, Parker would produce forged documents to prove that he was the bridge's owner. Then, he convinced anyone he deemed gullible enough that by purchasing the bridge from him and setting up toll booths, they could earn huge profits.
It wasn’t until the police turned up and inevitably questioned the toll booths that the victims realized they’d been swindled, and by that time, Parker was always gone.
This, along with a whole host of other scams, carried on for decades until the clever conman was finally caught and thrown in prison in 1928. But not before he’d secured his place in history as one of the sneakiest fraudsters of all time. He wasn’t selling people up the river, but he sure was selling them over the bridge!
When I was a kid, I used to love a good treasure hunt. In real life though, it’s not easy to strike gold. Michael de Guzman, former prospector and project manager of gold mining company Bre-X, knew this all too well.
Back in 1993, de Guzman was assigned a plot of land in Borneo to try and find gold there. So, he and his team began mining, and after sending land samples over to be tested, they were blown away when the results came back.
The samples indicated a colossal deposit of gold! To be sure, dozens more samples were taken in the ensuing years, and by 1997 leading estimates suggested that over 13 million pounds of the stuff was hidden beneath the surface.
Bre-X were ecstatic. They’d bought the land at the near-worthless stock price of 30 cents a share, and now stocks had skyrocketed to a whopping $250 a share, over 800 times higher! It was called “the gold discovery of the century”.
But, unbeknownst to anybody other than de Guzman, there was a pretty big hitch. The site actually had no gold at all! In an attempt to get rich quick, the greedy prospector had been fixing the samples. At first, he’d shaved gold from his wedding ring into them, before moving on to using over $60,000 of locally panned gold.
And until 1997, he’d gotten away with it, but when the Indonesian president took an interest in the so-called “discovery of the century”, everything went rapidly downhill. He demanded the gold be independently verified by a different company, and de Guzman knew the game was up.
Unable to face the stark consequences of his actions, he dramatically flung himself from a helicopter to his death, and just days later, the truth about the gold came out. Stock prices plummeted, and Bre-X collapsed. In this case, crime really didn’t pay.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a lot of devastating consequences. One of the less devastating though was how it exposed some people’s interesting beliefs. Like, 5G technology being a government weapon used to spread the virus.
Well, back in 2020, one Seattle man decided to exploit these anti-5Gers by claiming he’d invented a special ointment you rub on your body to block the “harmful” 5G rays. He created a website for his so-called invention and started selling the cream for $20 per piece.
Incredibly, people bought it, and not just a few people, either. Thousands of them. In fact, the cream got so much attention that the police had to take down the website! But not before the sneaky scammer had netted a cool half a million dollars in just four short months. That’s some paycheck!
But what was the ointment actually made from? Well, when a scientist tested the suspicious looking concoction, they found out people had just been buying old Vaseline mixed with out-of-date sunscreen. So, they were more likely to get ill from the anti-5G lotion than the 5G towers! The irony, there’s enough of it to lather myself with.
You might’ve heard of Anna Delvey, the con artist who swindled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the New York elite by pretending to be a wealthy heiress. But let me tell you about an even more unbelievable con woman called Azura Mangunhardjono.
When she was young, Indonesian-born Azura was enamored by the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous. After moving to Hong Kong in 2003 though, the then 25-year-old Azura decided she’d actually join their ranks by convincing Hong Kong’s high society that she was an Indonesian princess.
Of course, this was a huge lie, but it got her into the upper-class social circles she longed to be a part of. And once there, she played the role of ultra-wealthy socialite exceedingly well. She even fooled American singer-superstar Lionel Richie!
Using a combination of charm and seduction, Azura secured the trust of those around her, and then extorted them for all they were worth. She’d always “forget” her credit card when it was her turn to pay for the extravagant outings she posted on her Instagram.
The expensive jewelry and designer bags she owned were given to her by scammed lovers. And her luxurious apartments weren’t the result of a royal inheritance, they were unpaid for, leading her to be repeatedly evicted.
Not that she ever let her friends know, Azura was an expert liar. When quizzed on why a high-profile woman like herself didn’t show up on Google, she simply told them that she was “too high profile”. Somehow, it worked!
Years went by, and countless victims ended up falling for her schemes, many losing large sums of money. Eventually, however, the lies came crumbling down. In 2018, Azura was caught out for selling counterfeit Hermes bags in Los Angeles. Despite being arrested though, her lawyers got her released, and she fled!
Even today, the tricksy woman’s whereabouts remain unknown, and her real name probably isn’t even Azura! But we do know she’s still out there scamming people. So, if you happen to bump into an Indonesian woman claiming to be a princess, maybe don’t give her all your life possessions.