Lee Israel was a struggling biographer from New York who was finding it increasingly difficult to pay the rent and keep up with veterinary bills for her cat. Rather than give up and concede to a life of menial office work like most struggling writers, she decided to put her skills to more lucrative use and try her hand at literary forgery, to see if she could make a few bucks by pretending to be a more successful writer.
If only there was a legit way to make money writing.
Dragging out her old typewriter, Israel sat down with a British dictionary and a book on correspondence style and began hammering out letters that purported to be written by Sir Noel Coward, one of the 20th century's most highly regarded and influential playwrights. Since he was such a big deal in the literary community, Coward is the kind of guy people spend their entire careers studying, so it was surprising when academics and collectors were taken in and started shelling out thousands of bucks for the letters.
Of course, Israel couldn't stop there, so she wound up forging letters from a bunch of other famous people, including Humphrey Bogart and American writer Dorothy Parker, until she was finally caught in a sting operation by the FBI when she started stealing actual letters from libraries in 1993.
One agent posing as a dealer was busting another posing as a hooker. Israel came between them.
That might have been the end of it, but Israel's forgeries were just a little too good. Later, Barry Day, vice president of the Noel Coward Society, decided to publish a collection of letters from the playwright. Having written seven freaking books about the guy already, there was no one better to weed out fakes. Yet his book wound up using two of Israel's forgeries.
Of course, Israel paid dearly for the fraud and learned that crime never, ever pays. And by that we mean she published a book in 2008 to tell the world what she'd been up to, profiting from her crime a second time. This memoir earned her Amazon best of the month that August, which is a lofty honor even Noel Coward himself has failed to reach.
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OK, it's one thing to fool the government or a bunch of snooty art experts. But damn it, scientists are humanity's last line of defense against bullshit. When your entire job revolves around skepticism and critical examination of evidence, you've got to be pretty damned hard to fool. Especially if someone were to try to, say, fake an entire scientific journal.
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"Au Naturel? Well, it sounds scientific."
Keep in mind, one of the most important components of a career in science is publishing your findings. Otherwise, you're just drugging rats for your own amusement. Journals know this, so getting research into a respectable publication can cost a fair penny. For exactly this reason, it's important to know which journals are respectable and which aren't -- a cancer paper published in The Lancet will be taken a lot more seriously than a piece in Boob Science.
At some point, Internet scammers caught wind of this, and thus began the lucrative enterprise of counterfeit journals. For example, the Archives des Sciences is one of the oldest and most highly regarded journals around, having been in the science business since 1791. Despite this, they never got around to creating a website, preferring to conduct their business through snail mail as though it's still 1791. Because of this oversight, a group of scammers from Armenia set up a fake website for Archives des Sciences and pretended that the journal had finally woken up to the 21st century.
via Scholarly OA
If they'd faked an ARG instead, the Internet would have debunked it in 10 minutes flat.
The fake website was set up so well that it looked exactly like the real journal was behind it, except for one important detail -- payment for article submission was directed to an Armenian bank. Presumably, after submitting your article, you could also learn one weird trick for losing weight and waste the rest of your afternoon playing Evony online.
The websites were so convincing that leading journal index Thomson Reuters included the online editions in their records, and the scam didn't come to light until the real journals' editors received phone calls from disgruntled scientists wondering when their papers were actually going to be printed. And even after the ruse was discovered, the fake journals continued to operate -- they even called Thomson Reuters to complain when their details were removed (note: you have to have some balls to be a scammer).
That asset becomes a liability once you're caught.
And this kind of fraud happens all the time -- another group of scammers charged scientists thousands of dollars to make a presentation at Entomology-2013, not to be confused with the real conference Entomology 2013, minus the hyphen. It's estimated that 4,000 online journals, around a quarter, are predatory and only out to scam money from scientists. So if you're wondering why your cancer-curing jet pack is being held up, you can probably blame it on phishing scams. Thanks again, Internet.
Did you know that movies have a greater impact on reality than you realize? From how we view stockbrokers to what we think really happens in crime investigations, Jack O'Brien hosts David Wong in our latest podcast to let you know how brainwashed you really are. You can download it here and subscribe to it on iTunes here.
Related Reading: If you want more con artistry, go back to the source: learn about the original Ponzi. If you prefer your con-men with a side of "saving countless thousands", read about Raoul Wallenburg. Ready for more hoaxes? Right here.
Did someone say con? Here's Comic-Con the Musical.