#3. Michael Franzese: from Mobster to Motivational Speaker
Micheal Franzese was a capo for the Colombo crime family. He joined while in his teens and climbed the ranks mostly through gasoline racketeering. Franzese also was involved in other more "legitimate" ventures like film production and running a sports agency, but the gas racket was his best gig--he is said to have been the single most profitable gangster since Al Capone.
He even made it to number 18 in Fortune's "50 Most Wealthy Mob Bosses," which is number three on Cracked's list of "10 Things We Can't Believe Fortune Made a List Out Of."
Number one being "The Top 10 Crayons Vin Diesel Lost in his Bedroom."
He was arrested for his gas racket in 1986, and three years later he testified against his father, John "Sonny" Franzese, officially leaving the mafia.
How Did He Turn it Around?
Franzese did the obvious for a man in his position: He wrote an autobiography. He also was asked to speak to many Christian congregations and young athletes about the dangers of gambling, presumably sprinkling his talks with nuggets of wisdom like "you will probably lose" and "guys like me will have your kneecaps cracked with a pipe wrench."
He also became a motivational speaker and founded the Breaking Out Foundation to keep young people from screwing up their lives with gambling, and wrote a book comparing the business world to organized crime called, sigh, I'll Make You An Offer You Can't Refuse.
#2. Fraudster Uses Fraud Experience to Fight Fraud
In 1983, at the age of 16, Barry Minkow started a carpet cleaning and restoration business called ZZZZ Best. However, he couldn't finance it properly because California law at the time forbade minors from opening checking accounts, and the only kinds of businesses that deal exclusively in cash usually involve bullets, heroin and prostitutes.
Do not try the Asian salad.
So he did the next best thing to getting a real checking account: He stole his grandma's jewelry and staged break-ins at his business to generate funds, and used check kiting to cover his credit card expenses. He also pulled tricks like borrowing letterhead from other companies to give the appearance of authenticity. In 1986, ZZZZ Best went public, and within a year its stock was worth $18 a share and Minkow had netted a cool $100 million, a mansion, a Ferrari Testarossa and balls so huge light could not escape their massive gravitational pull.
He went so far as to bribe a security guard at a recently built office complex to show a group of auditors just how incredibly great his restoration crew was, claiming that the building had been in terrible shape until it was restored by his people.
People started getting wise to the fact that the incredibly profitable insurance restoration part of Minkow's business was utter crap, and began digging around. When all was said and done, he earned himself 25 years in prison on 54 charges ranging from racketeering to money laundering and several types of fraud.
How Did He Turn it Around?
Despite getting his ass handed to him by the law, Minkow served just under seven and half of his 25 years, earned three degrees in Ministry (appropriately majoring in Apologetics), and started FDI, a company that specializes in exposing corporate fraud and claims to have "experience on both sides of the law concerning financial fraud," which feels a lot like having Jeffery Dahmer ride along with some paramedics for advice on human anatomy.
"No no, stick the IV into his eyeball. It works better that way."
Barry and FDI have tackled some big cases, preventing over $1 billion in fraud since their inception. In 2008, FDI revealed that the CFO of the company Herbalife had falsified the education portion of his resume in order to get the job. He quit the company in disgrace, leading to a sudden decline in the value of its stock. Luckily, Minkow sold his substantial share of Herbalife stock just before the fraud was uncovered.
#1. Kevin Mitnick and the Booming Hacker Economy
He was at one time the most famous and most wanted computer criminal on planet Earth. Kevin Mitnick hacked into systems owned by Motorola, Nokia, Sun Microsystems, NEC and even the L.A. bus system (to score free rides). And that's just the stuff we know about. He's thought to have also cracked the FBI, the Pentagon, MCI, Novell, the University of Southern California, the California DMV and many more.
And presumably did a lot of rollerblading.
When you step on that many toes, you are going to eventually get caught. Mitnick was taken down in 1995 and spent the next five years in jail, with an additional provision that he not be allowed to touch any technology more advanced than a landline telephone for several years after he was released (which he successfully got overturned in court).
How Did He Turn it Around?
Just as Minkow convinced the business world that it takes a con artist to catch con artists, Mitnick has made lucrative business off the idea that it takes a hacker to stop hackers. He now runs Mitnick Security, for which Mitnick does consultations for corporate networks and goes on speaking engagements around the world.
We would like to point out that in the long run crime does not in fact pay for most people. Unfortunately, that apparently goes out the window if you're really good at hacking. Recently, a 21-year-old who created the first-ever iPhone worm was punished by getting a lucrative job writing iPhone apps. A famous Chinese hacker named Li Jun got nailed with a five-year prison sentence for creating a devastating computer worm, then got a freaking six-figure job offer while he was still in jail.
The company making the offer? Jushu Technology, one of the victims of the worm. On one hand we can see how it makes sense to get destructive hackers on your team rather than have them roaming free and planning mayhem. On the other, it doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy to send the message to millions of computer literate teenagers that they'll get rich if they'll just get lots and lots of practice hacking first.
Now check out the other side of the criminal world, in The 7 Most Retarded Criminal Excuses of All Time and The 7 Most Baffling Criminal Defenses (That Sort of Worked).
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated Today!) to see which columnist used to a petty crook (hint: It's all of them).