1. The Ponzi
In a world where “Nigerian princes” had yet to utilize email, one crafty foreigner figured out the best way to swindle wealthy people out of their money: by promising them a ridiculous rate of return on investments. Charles Ponzi (also known as Charles Ponei, Charles P. Bianchi, Carl, or simply ‘The Ponz’) promised his clients a 50% return on their investment in a ridiculously short amount of time. He initially acheived this by paying his past clients with the investments of future clients. This evil genius tactic has become known as a “Ponzi Scheme,” and was most famously utilized in recent history by Bernie Madoff. He eventually went to jail, because duh.
2. The Pudding
Here’s some proof that great schemes aren’t reserved for the past, or the slammer. In 1999, David Phillips realized that the return on a mail-in-rebate outweighed the price of Healthy Choice pudding snacks. So he bought 12,150 cups of pudding (and spent $3,500), and sent in the rebate netting over a million frequent flier miles from American Airlines. To avoid suspicion, he claimed he was stocking up for Y2K. And since all the pudding was donated to charity, he also netted a hefty tax-break. And since these stories rarely go untold, the scheme became part of the plot of the 2002 romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love.
3. The Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale Jr.’s schemes were at first the knee-jerk reactions of a frightened 16-year-old, but soon turned into one of the largest check fraud scandals in history. Before his 21st birthday, he successfully posed as a pilot, an attorney, a professor at a university, and a doctor, in addition to cashing $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in EVERY US STATE AND 26 OTHER COUNTRIES. His life was immortalized in the book and the movie about the book, called Catch Me If You Can (you’ve probably heard of it). And to top it all off, he’s now clean, and one of the world’s most respected authorities on check fraud. Not surprisingly, his life story has also inexplicably become a Broadway musical.
4. The Million Little Lies
James Frey wrote a book called A Million Little Pieces about his criminal past and struggles with addiction, and it inspired millions. Literally. Millions of dollars. To be spent on his book. Which was essentially a bag of lies. Naturally, people felt very betrayed, but Frey got his fortune and fame, despite being shamed by Oprah.
5. The When In Doubt, Sue
Sometimes you need to take advantage of the situation. Stella Liebeck, a 79 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, spilled an entire cup of McDonalds coffee on her lap and suffered third-degree burns as a result. She sued McDonalds, but refused to settle for the cost of her medical bills and was eventually awarded over a million dollars in punitive damages. It has since become the poster-child for frivolous litigation.
6. The Ghost Whisperer
The Fox sisters are known for their talent for communicating with ghosts. Unfortunately, their talent was actually conning their parents, community, and eventually the entire world. The sisters convinced their parents they could communicate with ghosts through a series of “raps and knocks,” a story that in hindsight, would barely make it into the plot of Paranormal Activity 5. But they made tons of money from believers longing to communicate with the dead, before giving up the hoax, and dying in poverty. They were unavailable to rap about this article.
7. The Fake Illness, Get Money
In a recent example of the “feign illness, get money” gambit, Lori Stilley, a woman from New Jersey, pretended to have stage IV bladder cancer for almost two years. She even lied to her children about it. In the process, she raked in thousands in donations from friends and family for treatment. She even wrote an e-book about her struggles.
8. The Tower of Lies
Victor Lustig (1890 - 1947) was a famous con man (who even conned Al Capone out of some money), but his most famous grift was “selling” the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. When he read about the condition of the Tower at the time in the newspaper, he sent letters to a bunch of metal dealers posing as a Government official looking to sell the tower for scrap. Then he took a train to Vienna with a suitcase full of cash.
9. The City of Lies
George Parker (1870 - 1936) kind of out-did Lustig, even though he came first. He “sold” a variety of New York City landmarks to unsuspecting tourists, including the original Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb, the Statue of Liberty, and most famously, The Brooklyn Bridge, which he sold twice a week for years.
10. The Entire Country Of Lies
This might be the greatest one of all time. Scottish soldier and adventurer Gregor MacGregor not only has a hilarious name, but a hilarious story. After fighting for South American independence, he returned to England, pretending to be cazique of “Poyais,” a totally made-up Island nation off the coast of Honduras. He even created a guidebook detailing the landscape and abundant natural resources. He collected money from over 250 would-be colonists, and by the time his investors reached the patch of water where their island should have been, he was already rounding up more money from potential colonists in France. Damn.