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 ...
Butcher Pretends to be Wealthy Woman's Dead Son ... and She Believes Him
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.
Seen here impersonating the Notre Dame mascot before assaulting a 5-year-old.
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."
Comedian Makes Up Story About Satanism, Becomes National Expert
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.'"
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!
Prankster Pretends to Be Serial Killer; Cops Let the Real One Go
John Humble was just an unemployed drunk living in Sunderland, England, in the late '70s when he heard about the Yorkshire Ripper killings -- the police were desperately trying to find a man who had killed nine women and didn't seem to have any intention to stop. Since there was nothing good on TV and you can only re-read Proust so many times, Humble thought it might be fun to send the police an anonymous letter pretending to be the killer, just for the heck of it. Humble then followed that up with two more letters and a tape where he taunted the cop in charge of the investigation for still not finding the killer.
"I mean, uh, me. I'm the killer. *burp* Sorry."
Obviously, Humble didn't have any inside knowledge of the case, so he got some details wrong: He said he was targeting hookers, with a preference for "old sluts," but some of the victims were clearly just regular pedestrians and most were under 30. Humble had read about Jack the Ripper and apparently got his serial killers mixed up for a moment there.
"A physical description? Bald, mid-40s, looks a lot like Kevin Spacey ..."
Still, the police totally thought they were hearing the voice of the killer and steered the investigation in that direction. Even useless drunks can develop a conscience sometimes, so in September of 1979, a tormented Humble finally worked up the courage to call the police station twice and tell them the tape was "a fake."
This is the point where the cop on the other side of the line presumably said, "Nice try, Ripper!" and hung up. They kept treating the phony tape as real, going as far as to question thousands of men and crossing off guys who didn't sound like Humble -- guys like Peter Sutcliffe, the real Ripper, who was sent home for not having the right accent. Then again, Sutcliffe had been interviewed in connection to the case on eight other occasions and released every time. The cops' ineptitude would be hilarious if the guy hadn't killed four more women in that time.
"It was weird because he didn't look like a serial killer at all!"
It was only when Sutcliffe was busted with fake plates in 1981 and confessed to the murders that the cops realized they'd just spent several years investigating a prank. Humble himself was only revealed as the hoaxer in 2006, after he was caught drunk driving and had to give a DNA sample, which matched one taken from the letters.
Drug Baron Gets Pardoned for "Helping" Find Weapons He Just Hid
In the '90s, John Haase was pretty much the British Tony Montana ... until he got caught and sentenced to an 18-year prison sentence, so maybe he was better than Tony Montana, because that guy got killed. Anyway, for some reason John wasn't comfortable with the idea of spending nearly two decades in jail, so he hatched a ridiculous plan that seems to prove he must have been dipping heavily into the heroin reserves. Step one: insert a cellphone into his anus.
Reminder: this happened in the early '90s.
Using his butt-phone, Haase would call his henchmen on the outside and have them buy massive amounts of guns and explosives. The henchmen would then "hide" the guns in various caches around the country, and Haase would get on Johnny Law's good side by tipping off the cops about these bonanzas, claiming they were other people's. It almost seems like something that might work, if Haase hadn't gotten sloppy: He'd order these stashes to be hid in unlikely spots like unattended, just-bought cars or unlocked houses. One lot of 80 new shotguns was put in a van outside a McDonald's.
It seemed pretty obvious that, for someone trapped inside a prison and calling in tips about other people's illegal property, John seemed to know a little too much about where to find them, often giving the cops treasure map-like directions.
"... and after 41 steps, you'll see a box labeled 'guns here, stupid'..."
So what did John Haase get in exchange for spending so much money on a harebrained scheme? Why, a royal fucking pardon. Haase served only 11 months of his 18-year sentence before being released; that's not a typo, the guy was in jail for less than a year. On one hand, this was the '90s and the IRA was all the rage, so the cops could be excused for getting so excited over the prospect of avoiding possible terrorist attacks -- on the other hand, British law enforcement had just been through this same scheme.
After he got out, John went right back to doing the same shit that got him caught in the first place ... and got caught again in 1999. No doubt emboldened by the success of his previous unlikely plan, he came up with another one: implicating the same authorities who let him out before in a bribery plot.
This time, he snuck a corrupt judge into prison inside his anus.
Instead of getting him a new pardon, the only thing this accomplished was setting off an investigation into that first one -- and that's how in 2005 the police found Polaroid photos taken by John's wife Debbie of her and a friend setting up the caches. So, to recap: Dumb druglord comes up with dumb scam, dumb wife documents it, and dumb cops fall for it. And that's when England officially became a Guy Ritchie movie.
Related Reading: There's a lot of precedence for lame scams working unreasonably well- this article is full of proof. One man actually lost more than $200 million to a Nigerian email scam. And every day, YOU put yourself at risk from digital thievery just by using public WiFi. Of course, the ultimate scam didn't even happen in the world of "real" finances. Learn about the great heist that rocked Eve Online.