We all think of ourselves as cynics -- other people fall for scams and fraudulent sales pitches, but not us! And in fact, since society has had several thousand years of practice at recognizing con artists, you'd think we'd get pretty good at spotting them. But you'd be wrong.
For a scam to succeed, it doesn't take any kind of special genius. Or even average genius. Just consider ...
#7. The Hitler Diaries
In 1983, the West German news magazine Stern announced that it had come into possession of a 62-volume collection of diaries written by none other than Germany's most famous square-mustached dictator. The diaries, written by hand and covering the entire span of Hitler's reign, mixed political diatribes with inane, sometimes amusing personal notes and anecdotes, like "Because of the new pills I have violent flatulence, and -- says Eva -- bad breath." There is literally no book that can't be improved by adding a farting Hitler chapter.
"And there came a mighty wind that swept the cities of Europe from the earth, and lo, creation did smell of cabbage."
But besides giving long-sought-after insight into the nature of Hitler's farts, the diaries threatened to rewrite everything we thought we knew about the infamous Fuhrer. It painted him as a sympathetic figure who yearned for peace with Britain and wasn't even aware that his military was committing genocide, thinking they were just shooing the Jews someplace far away.
"Maybe Cleveland? I hear Wichita is pretty empty these days."
When Stern learned about the diaries, it coughed up $4 million on the spot, without checking to see if they were real. After that, offers started pouring in from media the world over to purchase the rights to publish them, and even Rupert Murdoch joined in the bidding war. Through the hysteria, nobody seemed to notice that there were a few, well, oddities.
Why No One Should Have Bought It:
First, there was the little fact that the initials on the cover read "F.H." instead of "A.H.," due to the forger's inability to distinguish between calligraphic lettering.
Michael Urban / AFP / Getty
Fonzarelli Hitler would have been way more laid back about things.
When someone finally decided to have the diaries analyzed, they found that the books weren't just fake -- they were primary-school-art-project fake. The forgeries were written in modern books with modern ink and dipped in tea in order to pass as antiques. Furthermore, the text didn't match Hitler's handwriting. "Hitler" even got the color of his own uniform wrong.
The Nazis were famously colorblind.
The journalist who had invested in the diaries, Gerd Heidemann, was such a sucker for Nazi memorabilia that he took the diaries at face value without, you know, running them past a historian or something. The guy he was dealing with turned out to be Konrad Kujau, a notorious forger who made his livelihood by creating fake Nazi relics and selling them to collectors for profit. Kujau did four years in prison for the stunt, but after his release, he was so famous that his forgeries sold better if he put his name on them. In fact, other forgers began to make money by forging Kujau's forgeries.
"You always hear about people wanting to be the next Hitler. Well, this is the next best thing."
#6. John Keeley's Mysterious Machine
In 1872, one John Keeley claimed to have built a machine in Philadelphia that could generate incredible amounts of energy from a comparably infinitesimal amount of water. With only one gallon of water as fuel, Keeley boasted that he could propel a steamship from New York to Liverpool. With this exciting claim, he managed to attract enough investors to set up his own electric company and work on his miraculous device.
"Miraculous" in this context meaning "wildly unimpressive."
It's pretty obvious from the fact that we're still driving gas-guzzling SUVs that Keeley's motor didn't really work. What's amazing is that nobody found out it didn't work until he'd been profiting from it for 24 years.
Why No One Should Have Bought It:
Keeley somehow managed to hide his fraud by keeping everyone confused about what exactly his machine did and how it worked, throwing around terms like "sympathetic equilibrium," "etheric disintegration" and "quadruple negative harmonics." All the while, he was conducting demonstrations of his device, pouring water into it and showing how it could bend iron bars like Superman.
Oh yeah, we see. You just prep the thematic compressor and pow, stuff.
Of course, he never managed to turn his machine into a marketable product, much to the frustration of his investors, and Keeley ultimately died before he could bring his life's work to fruition. Naturally, this was a golden opportunity for scientists to study Keeley's machine and find out how it actually worked.
The answer? It was powered by a generator that Keeley was hiding in his basement, attached to the machine by a system of belts and pulleys that he was hiding behind a false wall. You have to give him credit for gambling on nobody guessing the most obvious explanation for two decades.
"What? I'm not hiding anything. Sitting like this is just comfortable."
Whew, it's a good thing the world has learned its lesson about this sort of thing! And there's no way this next entry is going to prove that statement laughably wrong!
#5. A Company Sells Magic Wands to the Military
From 2001 to 2010, the British company ATSC Ltd. sold tens of millions of dollars worth of bomb and drug detection equipment to foreign governments, until an investigation by the British government concluded that the devices didn't actually do anything, and the company's CEO, Jim McCormick, was arrested for fraud. Despite an enforced ban on the company exporting its wares, they continue to manufacture the "ADE 651" for any government gullible and rich enough.
It's OK though, because they sell them to quiet and peaceful countries. Like Iraq.
But it's an easy mistake to make, right? Such equipment is high-end technology, and even if you're in the position of procuring gadgets for the military, it seems like it'd be easy to get screwed on a highly technical product that doesn't really work as promised.
Then again ...
Why No One Should Have Bought It:
What the website and manual for the machine try to hide under loads of technobabble is that the ADE 651 is a dowsing rod. In other words, it's an enchanted metal stick that can locate substances through the power of magic.
"Yup, your horse is carrying. I'll need to see his license."
Maybe military officials can still be forgiven for not realizing this, since the description for how the device works reads, "The principle for long range detection is based on the substance excitation that needs to be detected, with an electromagnetic field that propagates on a long distance and is not disturbed by the 'electromagnetic noise' from the environment generated by the RF transmitters and other electronic equipments that use electric current or electromagnetic waves."
"Unless the electromagnetic waves are not tautologically sound or if it's a Thursday."
But even considering that load of convincing-sounding nonsense, none of the governments or military officials who fell for the scam ever took a close look at the device before putting it into service protecting soldiers from bombs. If they had, they would have found that the only functional component of the device is a department store anti-theft tag that does nothing except look like something that does something.
Nevertheless, in Iraq and Afghanistan, $85 million was spent on thousands of suspended bent wires with handles. When faced with accusations that he was selling magic wands, McCormick simply replied, "One of the problems we have is that the machine does look primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights."
"It would totally help if the bombs had them, too. Boy, our faces are red."
#4. The Counterfeit Kubrick
For most of the early 1990s in London, Alan Conway, travel agent and small-time con man, lived a second life as famed director Stanley Kubrick. During this time, he fooled celebrities and regular people alike, getting free dinners and movie tickets, all while promising people roles in his upcoming films.
"Yeah, you can be Darth Vader's nephew or something. I mean, uh, Shaft's nephew. Whoever I invented, his nephew."
Dozens were fooled, including British politicians, journalists and performers, all of whom were thrilled to meet the great director. It's kind of surprising that so many Kubrick fans were sucked in by the ruse, considering ...
Why No One Should Have Bought It:
... Conway looked absolutely nothing whatsoever like Stanley Kubrick.
All old white men look the same.
But we can kind of forgive that, because he evidently used to claim that he had shaved his beard, and who knows what Kubrick looks like under that thing?
More baffling, though, is the fact that Conway was a soft-spoken man with a cultured British accent. Kubrick was from Brooklyn. It shouldn't have helped him that he apparently attempted to do an American accent and it came off conspicuously awful. But hey, maybe he's just really eccentric, right? Well, how about the fact that he didn't seem to know anything about Stanley Kubrick's films?
Well, there's "not knowing anything" and "not understanding a damn thing."
It gets even weirder -- people who had met the real Kubrick were still fooled somehow, such as New York Times writer Frank Rich, who bought the "shaved beard" story and never questioned why Kubrick had changed his accent and forgotten the details of all of his own movies.
"I just thought, 'Eh, it's Stanley Kubrick.'"
In the end, Conway got tired of trolling the Kubrick fan community and fell off the map. Spookily, he died of a heart attack just a few months before Kubrick died of the same thing, so in a way, Kubrick wound up doing an impression of Conway. We can think of at least one more improbable imposter, though ...