5 Badass Con Men Who Fooled the Experts There to Catch Them
Con artists exist because the world is full of stupid and/or gullible people who believe everything they hear. That's why the world also needs experts, people who are paid a lot of money to sort reality from bullshit. And we like to think they do a good job, otherwise museums would be full of pictures of dicks signed "Leonardo Da Vinci" in crayon.
But then occasionally some con artist slips through the cracks and manages to make a living selling bullshit to the exact people who should be most qualified to call it out, and suddenly you find yourself wondering if we're all just waiting to be suckers.
One Guy's Nonsense Anti-Terrorism Software Fools U.S. Intelligence
In 2003, catching terrorists was right at the top of the government's to-do list, thanks to a certain obscure incident that had recently happened in New York. The U.S. government was pretty jumpy about the whole thing and was enthusiastic about any new technology that might help them stop any future tragedies before they happened.
They handed out rainbow awareness ribbons so we could each make a difference.
Enter Dennis Montgomery, a computer programmer from California. He developed software that he claimed could decode messages broadcast by the Arab television network Al-Jazeera. He said he'd found them to contain coordinates and flight numbers used for planning terrorist attacks. Having learned from Hollywood that there's nothing you can't do with a computer, the Department of Homeland Security decided they'd take it and promptly handed over $20 million. That's quite a bit of money, considering Montgomery was pulling these secret messages out of his ass.
Flights were grounded all over the world on Christmas in 2003 after officials were warned by Montgomery's software that a terror attack was imminent. French authorities detained six people in connection with the supposed plot, then let all six go because they weren't terrorists at all. Frustrated, the French intelligence agency decided to test the software themselves, finding it to be "merde de cheval complete," or "total horseshit." The CIA agreed with this assessment and told the DHS what a bunch of morons they were, presumably with a comical slap across the back of the head.
2004's drone strike on DHS headquarters was an unrelated tragedy.
You'd probably assume Montgomery was fired and locked up in Guantanamo Bay for his deception, right? Of course not. He kept working for various government agencies for years, and in 2009 he was awarded a $3 million contract with the Air Force. At the end of that year, Montgomery was charged with passing bad checks at casinos in Vegas, at which point the intelligence services finally decided they should probably stop giving him money.
A Make-Believe Forensic Investigator Fools the British Courts for Years
Forensic investigation has got itself a pretty glamorous reputation, even though everything about its TV portrayal is nonsense. It's easy to see why someone might fancy a bit of laser-and-microscope action, so in many ways Gene Morrison was ahead of the curve. He decided in 1977 that dusting and swabbing was the life for him, so he set his sights on several years of hard study to gain the expertise necessary. Just kidding -- he bought a sham degree through the mail and began his own forensic investigation firm with no more qualification than what you can get from a pulp crime novel. Apparently no one bothered to check if his credentials were genuine or even whether the university they came from existed, because Morrison started calling himself "doctor," and that was good enough for the U.K. justice system. Thankfully, he only got away with this for ... let's see here ... 26 fucking years.
Even Dre managed just 20 years before his medical credentials were questioned.
Yep -- for the next two and a half decades, Morrison hired himself out to private and public clients, earning 250,000 pounds from U.K. taxpayers in the process. He testified in 700 trials, so that's several hundred lawyers who failed to spend five minutes figuring out that the witness was Mr. Liar McLiarpants. Sorry, that's Dr. McLiarpants.
Authorities had to reassess every case that Morrison had ever testified in to ensure that nobody had been convicted on his evidence, which in many cases was cut and pasted directly from the Internet. In the end, he was convicted on 22 charges related to perjury and fraud, although he insisted on being called "doctor" throughout his own trial.
He wore a stethoscope, too, to check court corpses' heartbeats.
It's not clear what it was about Morrison that had police, judges, and juries convinced of his worth for so long. Perhaps he changed the font when he copied and pasted a bunch of his reports from the Internet? A transcript of a police interview in 2007, after Morrison was caught out, suggests it is perhaps his ability to hold together a coherent tale with unbridled panache. For example, when asked where in America he'd studied for his degree, he came back with "Er, crikey, I can't remember."
A Man Carves Fake Artifacts in His Shed, Sells Them to Museums
The entire point of a museum is that it's full of people who know their shit -- the tourists may think they're just looking at a picture of some flowers in a swamp, but the museum knows it's a Monet. That's the whole reason museums exist. So you wouldn't think that somebody would be able to, say, make some bullshit in their garage and pass it off to museums as real priceless works of art. And you certainly wouldn't think the museums would fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars for said bullshit year after year. But you'd be wrong.
So, you're ignorant either way.
British artist Shaun Greenhalgh was having a hard time selling his work. He was reasonably talented, but damn it, reasonable talent doesn't get you nearly as far as, say, crime. So, Greenhalgh embarked on a career of creating and selling fake artifacts. After roping his father, George, into the scam, Greenhalgh tried to sell museums a "small silver object" inscribed with Old English and claimed it contained a piece of the true cross of Jesus. Experts at the British Museum and English Heritage realized the silver box was a fake, but thought the wood might be real, since claiming to possess a genuine artifact of the Crucifixion isn't suspicious even if you hand it over in an obviously forged container. George Greenhalgh sold the piece for 100 pounds. Then he sold another piece. He kept doing this for almost two fucking decades without being caught.
Greenhalgh produced fake paintings and sculptures, from copies of ancient artifacts to works by famous artists such as L.S. Lowry and Barbara Hepworth. His other pieces included a Roman plate, golden statuettes, and a Victorian vase. His father would claim that they were all heirlooms that he had found magically laying around the house, as though finding a seemingly infinite number of priceless relics under a sheet in your attic is completely normal. And museums and historians kept ruling them genuine.
Other pieces allegedly "fell off the back of a truck," explaining their ruined state.
Their most successful con was an Egyptian statuette called the Amarna Princess, which they sold to Bolton Museum in 2003 for 440,000 pounds. Ironically, the museum thought they were tricking the Greenhalghs by shelling out much less money than the ancient statue was worth. In reality, the statuette had been carved in just a few weeks and made to look old using tea and clay.
The head's missing because the elder Greenhalgh got angry and hungry seeing all the tea gone.
"Rubbing it in tea" is a method of faking age that has been practiced and perfected by 8-year-olds making pirate maps over many decades, so it's easy to understand why it would convince antiques experts. In the end, the Greenhalghs were caught when an ancient Assyrian relief they were hocking turned out to have a spelling mistake. When the experts decided to maybe take a second look at some of these artifacts, the whole long career of forgery began to unravel ... but not before the Greenhalghs made over $1.35 million.
A Woman Forges Letters from Literary Greats, Fools the Experts
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.
Fake Journals and Conferences Scam Real Scientists
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.
"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.
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.