Scams by phone, email and websites that collect all our data to put it upside down: we know. These everyday scams, which require great vigilance, even if by force, we see them coming from afar. Small players easy to unmask. But there is another level of scam: those of the masters in the field. Here is a top of those who play in the big leagues. Scams so huge they’ve faded away.
1. The guy who pretended he was banging a goddess
Pisistratus was the first true tyrant of Athens. In 561 BC, he seized power by force. He begins by taking the temple as his permanent, tranquillou residence. Then he takes the people for idiots. He rides around on a chariot, with a woman disguised as Athena and thinks that in this way, everyone will believe that he is fucking the goddess. AND THE WORST IS THAT EVERYONE IS DIVING INTO IT! Athena’s costume must have been really stylish so that no one made a difference.
2. Rembrandt van Rijn, the art of forgery
This Dutch painter is known for his famous paintings, in particular La Ronde de la nuit (1642) or The Standard Bearer, classified as a “national treasure” by the former Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, in 2019. What we know less is that this painter was also an outstanding hustler. He would have ordered from his students, in his own workshops, several thousand counterfeits of his own works. Counterfeits that he then signed with his name, normal.
Between 1909 and 1951: nearly 10,000 works bearing his signature arrive in the USA. If all of them had really been painted with his brush: that means he would have produced two paintings a day, every day of his life. We do not doubt his talent, but we still believe in it.
3. Gregor MacGregor, the guy who sold an imaginary country
He is clearly my favourite. An artist. A genius. What am I saying, a god of scams.THE GUY MANAGED TO SELL A COUNTRY THAT DOESN’T EXIST. Ok, that was in 1822, and Google maps wasn’t there to verify. BUT STILL.
Basically, he is a Scotsman, who shines with his cowardice and mediocrity in South American independence struggle movements. To recover: he decides to invent a country, “Poyais”, on 32,000 square kilometers of land, under British domination, which were ceded to him. And the guy does not do things by halves: he invents a counterfeit currency , a false flag, and even songs to the glory of his State, to attract investors. And it works! He sells hundreds of shares quickly.
Can you imagine the faces of the future inhabitants, transported by three boats, having signed work contracts with the government, when they arrived on this piece of wild land? It’s expensive Poyais (do you understand the valve?) for a night under the stars.
The most phew in this story: the few survivors of the deception did not blame the scam on McGregor. They even demonstrated against the media coverage of the case… Well, maybe that was to protect what little dignity they had left.
4. Louis Einricht, a scam that fuels
In the United States, in 1916, Louis Einricht summoned the press to announce his new invention: a gasoline, three times cheaper to produce than the one used. He decides to keep the recipe for this fabulous mixture secret.
On paper, it’s dreamy. Manufacturers are fighting for this miracle product. Henry Ford even goes so far as to offer 10,000 dollars and a new car to the engineer, as an advance for their future contract, which is supposed to remain secret. Never mind: Einricht himself warns the New York Times of this agreement. A new industrialist then goes one better, offering him a million dollars. Einricht pockets, and disappears, surely at the wheel of his brand new Ford.
It is already far when the engineers discover the scam: it was simply water, acetone and acetylene: a mixture capable of starting an engine, but also much more expensive than simple gasoline, and corrosive for metal.
5. Hans Van Meegeren, the fake Vermeer
Painting and counterfeiting always, but here, we are squarely faced with a misunderstood painter who decides to do… Vermeer.
In 1920, only about twenty secular paintings by this 17th century artist are known. Hans Van Meegeren, an artist hated by art critics, decides to take revenge by creating Vermeer. Creating. Not by imitating. For years, he applied himself to imitating his technique down to the smallest detail, even reproducing the cracks of time on his paintings, and even the dust in the interstices!
He invents the story of an heiress wanting to get rid of her Vermeer collection, and it works! Quickly, he made a fortune.
In 1939, one of his works came into the hands of a Nazi marshal. At the liberation, the paintings are found, and the investigators go back to the artist, for having sold a Vermeer to a Nazi. At the time of the trials for collaboration, he was arrested and risked the death penalty. He confesses the truth. Nobody believes him. He reproduces a Vermeer in his cell. He becomes famous. Takes a year in prison for collaboration, anyway. Exit. Dies of a heart attack a month later. Glory time: 31 days.
6. Ponzi, and its cardboard pyramid
Ponzi is this Italian, who arrived in America in 1903, who made a model of scam, still used in the 21st century. The trick was so solid, that it was even called “the Ponzi scheme”. The principle: remunerated for customer investments, with funds generated by new entrants. To attract his customers, he makes enticing promises: interest rates of around 50% in 45 days, for anyone entrusting him with their savings. At the start: everything is rolling. As long as there are entrants, there is money. Everyone is paid, and sees nothing but fire.
The deception lasts a year, then collapses when all the savers want to withdraw their money. Of the $15 million entrusted by more than 40,000 savers, only a third is returned.
If he ends his life completely ruined in Brazil, the Ponzi Pyramid survives. This is the technique that Bernard Madoff will also use at the beginning of the century.
7. Franck Abagnale Junior, Spielberg’s muse
This 73-year-old Franco-American is none other than the man who inspired the film Catch Me If You Can at Spielberg. And a musical of the same name. Just that.
He is also a master crook, who pretends to be a lawyer, an airline pilot or even a doctor. He works under eight different identities. He forged checks to travel at the expense of Pan American World Airways. But the guy is not satisfied with a small honeymoon in Australia. No. He just visits 26 countries with this technique, between his 16 and his 19 years.
Often in court, he also becomes a master of escape and changing identities.
After extracting millions of dollars from his shenanigans, he finally settled down. He became a… consultant anti-fraud.
8. JT LeRoy, the autobiography of the girl who doesn’t exist
Or should we say: Laura Albert. Or Savannah Knoop. ARRGH COMPLICATED THIS STORY.SO. JT LeRoy is this writer who wrote her autobiography, entitled “Sarah”, in 2001. The girl is a drug addict, transsexual, prostitute, homeless and evokes an unhappy childhood. A very trashy life, which inevitably sells. The success is immediate. The author is therefore claimed by all the media. PROBLEM: JT LeRoy does not exist. It is in fact the author Laura Albert who invented this whole story, yet sold as an autobiography. BUT SINCE EVERY PROBLEM HAS HER SOLUTION: the author simply asks her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to pretend to be JT LeRoy (you follow?).
Master stroke: the trickery takes. Laura Albert writes 4 other books, published under the name of the imaginary writer, one of which is even adapted for the cinema.
But this chapter of glory is brutally closed six years later, when the New York Times investigates and reveals the pot of roses. A dirty story which may be inspired by JT LeRoy for his new autobio.
9. Gilbert Chikli, the fake president
CEO of Banque Postale, Galeries Lafayette and even Disneyland Paris: Gilbert Chikli was not afraid to use world-famous companies to extort money.
To achieve this, a very simple technique: he telephones company executives, asks them to transfer a sum of money to him, claiming to obey the general management of external security. In this way, he recovered 50 million euros between 2005 and 2006.
The “king of the unpacking”, precursor of the scam to the president, who went so far as to pose as Jean-Yves Le Drian, was finally sentenced to eleven years in prison and 2 million euros. euros in fines in 2020.
10. Gregory Zaoui, the master of ecology
Aka the hustler brought to light by Netflix. The guy simply organized the “heist of the century”, and caused the French state to lose 1.6 billion euros between 2008 and 2009. Just that.
It’s a bit technical. Basically, in Europe, there is something called “carbon quotas”. To put it simply, countries have pollution thresholds not to be exceeded, to fight against global warming. If the State exceeds the limit, then it must buy back quotas to catch up with its emitted pollution. If he is below, he can resell them.
Greg made it simple: he bought rights to pollute tax-free in the European Union, then sold them to France. He then reinvested this money without paying VAT to the French State. In total, it will have caused Europe to lose 6 billion euros. Broom. So tough that he surrendered himself to the authorities in 2019, after two years on the run.
Psst: I put a little video right there, to understand the carbon quota. You’ll see, it’s almost simple.
11. Diamonds for Gold Kubs
In Paris, in 2019, a dapper young lady introduced herself as the third wife of a wealthy Dubai sheik. Accompanied by her “servant”, she goes to the Hermel jewelry store, in the 1st arrondissement, and passes for a VIP client.
She then asks to have the diamonds placed in a box, declaring that her husband will make a transfer the next day. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Whatever. Servant and husband who rinses, it’s not so 2019, but good.
The next day, SURPRISE: no transfer, and above all, a box filled with… Maggi Stock Cubes. The false princess and her accomplice took advantage of the absence of the saleswoman, gone to answer the call of the third accomplice of this masquerade, to replace the stones. 1.6 million euros: salty for a vulgar soup.