55 Apex-Level Swindlers Whose Schemes Fooled The World
It seems like the whole world has gone mad, with vast numbers of people eating up lies peddled by obvious con artists. Is this something new? Lord, no. If anything, we've become much more savvy and skeptical, judging by the following scammers who somehow managed to fool people in days past.
1. The Katos
Sogen Kato died at 79. Still, his family wanted to continue receiving his pension, so they mummified his body and left it in their apartment. They kept this up for 30 years. Even when Sogen became (supposedly) the oldest man in Tokyo and attracted a bunch of visitors, they still managed to maintain the ruse for a while.
2. Carlos Guzmangarza
Carlos Guzmangarza set up his own cosmetic surgery clinic, despite having zero medical experience. He offered liposuction to one patient, saying she would be his assistant for her own procedure, and he smoked a cigar while sucking six pounds of fat from the conscious woman. He flushed the fat down the toilet, and the patient reported him after the wound got infected.
3. Meinhard Goerke
Goerke called himself a wine merchant named Hardy Rodenstock, selling such rare specimens as four bottles owned by Thomas Jefferson. But when the buyer realized the initials "TJ" on the bottles he'd paid $500,000 for were made by a modern dental drill, he realized Goerke just sold random wine with outlandish claims. No one could tell the difference because all wine tastes the same, apparently.
4. John Duval Gluck
Gluck ran the Santa Claus Association in 1910s New York, collecting poor kids' letters to Santa and matching them with volunteers who'd answer their wishes. Good work, really. He then crowdfunded a giant "Santa Claus Building" in downtown Manhattan and slipped away with the money without building anything.
5. William "Boss" Tweed
This New York democratic operative was behind all kinds of schemes, including sending homeless people to vote for his candidate, shaving them, then having them vote again. He ran construction on a new courthouse, charging a million dollars in today's money for "Brooms, etc." and $100k just to print a report.
6. Erwin Mena
7. Kimberly Kitchen
Kitchen walked into a Pennsylvania law firm with a fake law degree and fake bar exam results. By the time they found her out ten years later, they'd promoted her to partner, and Kitchen had served as president of the local bar association.
8. Michael Manos
After doing time for kidnapping in the '80s, Michael Manos styled himself as a socialite real estate developer by donating a house to Jane Fonda's charity. He did not, in fact, own the house he claimed to be donating. He then moved to Washington, where he made money as a lobbyist and as a fundraiser (he kept all the funds for himself).
9. Carlo Cani
You'd think that since Carlo Cani was claustrophobic, he'd know better than to take a job in a coal mine. Well, he did know better than to work in the mine that employed him. He started skipping work with some normal malingering, then moved on to pretending to be drunk, so they sent him home. When he retired, he'd spent 35 years on the payroll without working.
10. Christopher Dickinson
Homeless and drunk, Christopher Dickinson decided to start claiming to be Peter Criss from KISS. He reasoned, correctly, that not too many people have any idea what the members look like out of their makeup. He fooled so many people that even one of Criss' real exes figured the story had to be true and sent him a first-class plane ticket to come to visit her.
11. Joaquin Garcia
Joaquin Garcia's job was to oversee the construction of a Spanish water treatment plant. But the water company thought this job involved working on the city council, while the council thought it involved working at the plant. Not till he was up for an award for 20 years of service did everyone realize he had spent the past 14 years getting paid to chill at home doing nothing.
12. Lee Israel
Lee Israel needed just a typewriter and a guide to British correspondence to forge a bunch of old letters from famous figures. Even when she moved on to stealing actual old letters from libraries, her own forgeries went unchallenged -- till a publisher put out a book collecting them all.
13. Michael West
14. Waldo Demara Jr.
Demara had a long resume as a con man much like Frank Abagnale from Catch Me If You Can, successfully impersonating a surgeon, a psychologist, and a Texas prison warden, among other ventures. Then he posed as a religious brother and founded a university ... which still operates today, legitimately, as Walsh University.
15. Nathan Rothschild
If you hear someone muttering about "the Rothschilds" today, they're a conspiracy loon. But let's not forget the real Nathan Rothschild, who learned early that England defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and sold so much stock that everyone else figured England lost, so they sold their own stock. He then bought up the crashed market and made a fortune.
16. Willie Wright
A lot of people use ID theft to get credit cards, but Wright took it a step further. To make his fraud convincing, he took up the same name and profession as the man he was impersonating on credit card applications, teacher Robert Eugene Sullivan. This went on for ten years, till the real Sullivan, after years of inexplicably bad credit, received duplicate pensions and reported the extra money.
17. Robert Tilton
Congregants lost faith in this Texas preacher when after they gave him money, they didn't magically gain more money, despite what he'd told them would happen. So Tilton moved his fraud from in-person to the internet, now telling the faithful worldwide that they'll see fortune if they only give him everything they have.
18. Malachi Love
Dr. Love, at 18, walked around a hospital with a stethoscope and a lab coat claiming to be a gynecologist. He deserved a worse punishment than getting kicked out of the hospital. But then, he went and opened his own competing practice while still not being a doctor -- which was legal because he called it a "Holistic And Alternative Medical Center."
19. Matthew Scheidt
Teenager Matthew Scheidt seemed to have less sinister motives when he posed as a doctor in 2011. He actually offered medical treatment to sick people, including correctly administering CPR, till he was caught. And after he was caught, he ... immediately took to impersonating a police officer.
20. Alan Knight
21. Tai Lopez
Lopez ran an ad campaign showing off his garage full of luxury cars, saying he reads a book a day and offering to educate you for a small fee. The material he sold was all nonsense; it turned out that he actually read one book's table of contents per day. And that garage of cars? It wasn't his.
22. Alexander of Abonoteichus
We still haven't found many frauds better than this prophet from the second century. Alexander stitched a human head to a snake and created a snake cult, then he advised the emperor using instructions he said he got from his snake puppet.
23. Anthonie de Bruin
Anthonie de Bruin, in witness protection after giving false testimony against a motorcycle gang, told the Netherlands he was actually the "Duke Of Aragon." He got the media to rush to film his upcoming wedding to a Scottish aristocrat in a palace. But when they showed up, the doors were locked, and there was no wedding. Later, he was reduced to a less fancy scheme: reselling stolen kitchen appliances.
24. Wilhelm Voigt
In the early 1900s, ex-con Voigt put together a military uniform and used it to take command of some passing soldiers. Then he marched them into the German town of Kopernick and ordered them to arrest the mayor. Just following orders, the soldiers obeyed and even helped him loot the town treasury. Not till he vanished did they question whether this was all above board.
25. Dennis Montgomery
Computer programmer Dennis Montgomery said he'd decoded secret messages broadcast by Al Jazeera. The Department of Homeland Security was so impressed that they handed him $20 million and even grounded flights in 2003 based on his warnings. Then the French, suspicious after a Montgomery tip failed to pan out, discovered the software was total bullshit, but Montgomery was allowed to keep working for the government.
26. Joyce Hatto
Hatto was an amazingly prolific recording artist, releasing 100 albums of piano music in the last years of her life to rave reviews. Then tech evolved, someone stuck a disc in a computer running iTunes, and it recognized the music as being actually by a pianist named Laszlo Simon. Turned out Hatto had done just one of her CDs. All the others were music by other people.
27. Paul Jordan-Smith
28. Konrad Kujau
Kujau forged a diary supposedly written by Hitler. People lapped it up, interested in Hitler's frank thoughts about his bad breath and interested to learn that the man was evidently totally ignorant of many of the Nazis' atrocities. Once the hoax was discovered, Kujau became so famous that other forgers made money by producing forgeries supposedly made by Kujau.
29. Lin Chunping
After the Great Recession, Lin Chunping gained fame for rescuing the Delaware-based Atlantic Bank. This landed him a job advising the Chinese government. Except, actually, there never was any Delaware-based Atlantic Bank. Maybe someone should have checked that out before believing him ...
30. Michael Wilson
At only 21, Wilson bought four rundown homes using his mothers' credit card and then got mortgages on them for much more than they were worth. This was enough for the down payment on a separate mansion, which really cemented his status as a rich guy. So, he easily tricked investors into giving him $8 million.
31. George Parker
You might have heard about people proverbially selling a bridge to suckers, but that's because George Parker actually did sell the Brooklyn Bridge to con victims, convincing them he owned the bridge and they could make a lot of money charging cars tolls. He pulled this off many times.
32. Wang Hongcheng
In 1983, Chinese amateur chemist Wang claimed that he'd created a pill that turns water into fuel. Seems like the sort of grift that can last roughly as long as it takes to test. But Wang kept this going for ten years and got the Chinese government to give him tens of millions of dollars.
33. John Keeley
In 1872, inventor John Keeley also claimed the ability to extract huge amounts of energy from water. His secret? His mysterious machine, strong enough to bend iron bars, was actually powered by a generator in his basement.
34. Christophe Rocancourt
35. Walid Shoebat
According to Walid Shoebat, he's an ex-terrorist who found Jesus. Weird, because if he really committed terrorism, you'd think someone would arrest him instead of letting him book speaking gigs. In reality, CNN was able to debunk his story by traveling to Palestine and checking it out -- though, not before inviting him on-air as a "terrorism expert" for years.
36. Wayne Simmons
Also fake: ex-CIA "terror analyst" Wayne Simmons. His 27 years at the CIA made him a recurring guest on Fox News, and he was even invited by Donald Rumsfeld to listen to briefings on the Iraq War. Except, he made up his CIA experience, and the real CIA eventually called him out on his lie. His excuse: He blamed Benghazi.
37. Gene Morrison
Gene Morrison bought an online degree and opened his own forensic investigation firm. He testified in 700 trials over the course of 26 years. Then the UK finally discovered he was a fraud, throwing all those convictions into question. At his own trial, he still insisted on being addressed as "Doctor."
38. Matt Katzenbach
Katzenbach walked into the Sundance film festival in 2016, claiming to be Bradley Cooper. Everyone believed him and even let him spin records as a DJ. To help his impersonation, Matt wore a chef uniform like Cooper wore in his film Burnt, even though the actual Cooper would probably not show up at Sundance dressed in such a manner.
39. Madame Giselle
D.C. socialites believed the crazy stories of Colombian expat Madame Giselle, who said she had been married to Hugo Chavez and was now secretly married to Egypt's president. And when she said she'd wormed into a deal to sell shirts to the Venezuelan army, they readily each gave her thousands to invest in the scheme. And that was the last that D.C. socialites heard from Colombian expat Madame Giselle.
40. Chris Butler
Butler produced a reality show called P.I. Moms, about mothers who solve crimes. And while all reality show producers are guilty of fraud on some level, it turned out that in addition to staging stings and passing them off as real, Butler was selling meth that police had confiscated from criminals.
41. Shaun Greenhalgh
42. Douglas Stringfellow
A great milestone in the movement for disabled rights came when Utah elected Douglas Stringfellow to Congress. Stringfellow was paraplegic, having been tortured by the Nazis fighting World War II. At least, that's what he claimed. He served a term before people realized he was lying and could walk.
43. Bill Jakob
Sergeant Bill rolled into the town of Gerald, Missouri, saying he'd come from the DEA to clear the place of drugs. He spent five months there, arresting numerous suspects without warrants and, in fact, largely ridding the town of its meth. Bill was not really a sergeant. He was just a random ex-con and wound up arrested himself.
44. Roberto Gomez
Gomez showed up at a Baptist church in 1997 and said a newly deceased relative had willed some cars to the congregation, and he just needed $1,000 per car to cover the taxes on them. People believed him and paid him money for these cars (that did not exist). Then he moved on to a different congregation and raised the price. Altogether he gifted 7,000 imaginary cars, making $21 million.
45. Alain de Villegas
Count Alain de Villegas and TV repairman Aldo Bonassol came up with a device in 1976 that they said could detect undiscovered oil fields from the air. Of course, it was complete nonsense, which was why they forbade scientists from examining it, but they still managed to fool a Swiss president and prime minister.
46. Sal Pane
Pane was a scammer, sure, and he exploited a lot of people in hot water during the 2008 financial crisis. But in 2014, he stepped up and advised New York about how to address their Ebola outbreak. He claimed to bring with him 27 years of experience as a hazmat specialist. Truly impressive for someone just 31 years old.
47. Uri Geller
Geller fooled people for decades, claiming to be able to bend spoons with his mind but failing to do so whenever someone tested him by surprise. The weird part is how his career continued long after he was debunked, including being taken seriously after he claimed he could stop Brexit telekinetically.
48. David Deng
49. The Penns
The Penns (after whom Pennsylvania is named) managed to get a treaty with the Delaware tribes that would give them "the distance a man could walk in a day and a half." Probably, that meant 40 miles. But Thomas Penn hired two speed walkers to walk extra, gaining 1.2 million additional acres. If you're wondering why anyone would agree to such an ambiguous treaty, well, probably no one had: the Penns likely forged it.
50. Carlos da Cruz Sampaio
This military officer presented Rio de Janeiro with a system to predict future crimes, a system that actually worked and led crime in some places to drop by half when police used the info. People were just surprised to later learn that Sampaio wasn't a military officer at all but worked at the local zoo.
51. Artur Baptista da Silva
Da Silva began as a convicted small-time fraudster in Portugal. Then he decided to become an economics pundit, falsely claiming to be a UN envoy and a professor. Having fooled his own country, he moved on to the US until someone contacted the UN and discovered he was a fake. He earned no money through all his media appearances -- he just wanted to stick it to the government.
52. Manuel Elizalde
Elizalde got a series of stories in National Geographic about the Tasaday, a Filipino tribe who lived in caves and had no words for "war" or "enemy." He collected $35 million to protect the tribe. When skeptics finally came to visit them, they found a bunch of people in jeans and T-shirts who lived in houses and watched TV.
53. Vincent Richardson
It took a while for Chicago to realize that new cop Richardson was wearing a fake uniform. They should have noticed something off earlier, considering he was just 14 years old. Later, now 19, Vincent tried it again and got sentenced to 18 months, then got released and did it yet again.
54. Robert Fortune
In the 1840s, Britain wanted to know why Chinese tea was so much better than Indian tea. So they sent in a spy to pretend to be Chinese. Robert Fortune in no way looked Chinese, and he spoke with a Scottish accent, but he pulled it off. And he found out China's secret: poisonous dyes.
55. Bill English