5 Insane Scams That Should Have Failed (But Didn't)

Most scams involve three essential steps: coming up with a somewhat plausible scenario ("I'm a dying businessman in a faraway country"), promising the victim something they want ("I have all these millions to give away") and getting them to give you something in return ("Oh, the bank fee is just 2,000 bucks"). Sometimes, however, the scammers forget the first step and just go with the most transparently bullshit stories ... and somehow still fool everyone.

For a while, anyway -- otherwise we wouldn't know about the time when ...

#5. Butcher Pretends to be Wealthy Woman's Dead Son ... and She Believes Him


The Ridiculous Scam:

Sir Roger Tichborne was the heir to a British fortune who went missing during a trip to South America, along with the entire ship he happened to be standing on. Ten years later, in 1866, Sir Roger's mother still hadn't abandoned the hope that her son might turn up somewhere, so she published a series of ads promising a "most liberal reward" for any information of his whereabouts. That's when Arthur Orton, a broke butcher living in Australia, went up to Lady Tichborn and said, "Yep, that's me. I'm totally your son."

Left: Sir Roger and his pimp hat. Right: Arthur Orton and an extremely unlucky chair.

Leaving aside the fact that Orton was the size of like three Sir Rogers, another thing that undermined his blatant attempt to claim a dead man's fortune was his voice: Tichborne grew up in France, meaning he spoke English more or less like Inspector Clouseau, while Orton couldn't understand a word of French and had a thick Cockney accent that was obvious even from his brutally misspelled letters to his "ol' mum." Lady Tichborne took one look at the uneducated, unscrupulous scammer trying to profit from her grief and told him to eat every dick and get lost.

The Success:

Wait, no: She told him, "Welcome back, Roger!" The old lady was so desperate to believe that her son had returned from the dead that, discarding the nearly 200 pounds of evidence standing in front of her, she mistook Orton for the guy she had given birth to. And, of course, once Lady Tichborne declared that this was Sir Roger, other members of the family followed suit.

"It's him! I'd recognize that nose anywhere!"

Orton's time as a member of the Tichborne clan would have lasted a lot longer if Lady Tichborne hadn't croaked two years later, sending her heirs (real and pretend) into a long legal battle for her estate. In 1872 Orton lost the case and was prosecuted for perjury after it was determined that he lacked a couple of distinctive body tattoos Sir Roger had (efforts to locate them between the folds of his skin claimed the life of a constable). Still, most of the common classes continued to side with poor "Sir Roger" for years.

Wagga Wagga
Seen here impersonating the Notre Dame mascot before assaulting a 5-year-old.

#4. Too-good-to-be-true Car is, in Fact, Too Good to be True


The Ridiculous Scam:

In 1974, while the United States was in the middle of an oil crisis, one Geraldine Elizabeth "Liz" Carmichael arrived out of nowhere and promised a magical solution to our woes: a new three-wheeled car that was much faster, cheaper, and stronger than any competitor and used almost no gas -- it was simply fueled by its own awesomeness. Carmichael claimed to be the widow of a NASA engineer, although no one bothered to ask "Which one?"

"If you run out of gas, it also runs on snake oil! I've got some over here ...

The "Dale" supposedly ran at 70 miles per gallon and cost $2,000 (around $9,500 today). Also, it was made of "rocket structural resin" and could hit a brick wall at 30 miles per hour and suffer almost no damage, because why not? If the above claims haven't tipped you off that the whole thing was bullshit, then perhaps the fact that the motor appeared to be installed the wrong way around in the schematics shown in the Dale's brochure might:

"That's, uh ... what allows it to travel backward in time. To avoid accidents."

Of course, that brochure wasn't accurate: When a photographer for Car and Driver went to get some shots of the miracle car at the Dale's headquarters, he managed to pop open the hood and saw the following things: 1) a lawnmower engine, 2) the accelerator simply lying on the floor, and 3) no steering wheel. The little dwarf who normally made the car run had taken a bathroom break, presumably. Who the hell would fall for a scam like that?

The Success:

Lots and lots of people, it turns out. Liz Carmichael got more than 3 million freaking dollars in advance sales before a single Dale vehicle was produced, despite not even bothering to get all the licenses and shit you usually need to sell cars. The '70s press called the Dale "the car of the century" and a "space-age automobile" -- again, none of them had even seen it running. The whole country was so high on the idea of a car that would singlehandedly bankrupt the Big Three (also, cocaine) that no one stopped to think how that was even possible.

When it was revealed that the Dale was built of a mish-mash of parts from other stuff, including a vacuum cleaner and household door hinges, Liz vanished along with the money. She was discovered in Miami working for a dating service not long after and was also found to be a wanted felon named Jerry Dean Michaels.

After the police took her wig off, Liz uttered something about "those pesky kids and their dog."

#3. Comedian Makes Up Story About Satanism, Becomes National Expert

Wikimedia Commons

The Ridiculous Scam:

Mike Warnke might be the biggest Christian comedy act the country has seen -- yes, even bigger than Victoria Jackson. Warnke first rose to prominence in the '70s when he published The Satan-seller, a book about a wide-eyed orphan who becomes the leader of a gang of drug-dealing Satanists who rule California; the protagonist also has "waist-length white hair, 6-inch fingernails" and dozens of hippie chicks throwing themselves at him in orgies. No, this isn't a comedy; it's Mike Warnke's "biography."

For the record, this is what the "Satanic sex-magnet" looks like.

Among other things, Warnke's book claimed that Satanists sacrifice around 2 million Americans every year (or the entire population of Houston), that he and his pals were able to summon real demons, and that at one point he was the high priest of a coven of 1,500 people. Mind you, Warnke was supposed to be doing this at the same time that, according to actual friends, he was a short-haired college square involved with the Campus Crusade for Christ. The book ends after Warnke finds God and leaves Satanism, and also becomes a decorated war hero in Vietnam while he's at it.

"I had a couple of hours to kill and said, 'Eh, what the hell.'"

The Success:

There were literally hundreds of people who could be contacted to confirm or deny Warnke's fantastic tale, either because they knew him during that time or because he made them up for the book. Now guess how long it took for someone to do this. Six months? A year? Nope: two freaking decades. In 1992, Cornerstone magazine published a thorough 20,000-word collection of Warnke's easily disprovable lies. In the meantime, his book had become a best seller and he had turned into the nation's foremost expert on Satanic cults, aiding police and educating the masses on TV. Here he is making shit up on 20/20. Yep, this guy almost singlehandedly created the Satanic scare of the '80s.

As well as the Shadowy Ghost Wolves scare of the late '70s.

At the same time, Warnke was also selling millions of Christian comedy albums and saving souls through his ministry ... and pocketing most of the donations (in 1991, they collected $2,000,000 and $900 made it to charity). Oh, and did we mention he loved having affairs and splitting his wife's head open? When he was finally exposed, Warnke admitted he'd slightly inflated his number of Satanic followers from 13 to 1,500, but still insisted that the rest of it was real. He's currently trying to make a comeback despite being a well-documented piece of shit; hey, maybe he does have a sense of humor after all!

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