Just too good to be true? The most famous scams of all time

Melissa McCarthy as real-life literary forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The critically acclaimed ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ has put confidence tricks back in the spotlight. Robert Hume looks back at some of the most famous scams.

An email from a well-known courier, telling you that your invoice: “is ready to be paid now”, even though you haven’t shipped any packages; messages about PayPal and Apple transactions you’ve not made; an “attorney” offering to represent you as the only surviving relative of a dead man who has left a fortune. A phone call from the “technical department” of your wifi provider, warning there’s malware on your computer; one from an insurance company claiming: “a member of your family has recently been involved in an accident…”. Just a typical week for your average net and phone user.

Such confidence tricks may be on the increase, but they’re certainly not new. Oscar nominees Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant make a perfect pairing in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the story of real-life literary forger Lee Israel, who forged Noël Coward’s signature and typed missives from Dorothy Parker, selling them around New York bookshops. Here are some of the other scams to make it into history.

1. William Thompson: the first “confidence man”

Con men were once described as “diddlers”, after Jeremy Diddler, the artful swindler in James Kenney’s 1803 play Raising the Wind who never repaid his debts.

During the 1840s, William Thompson took deceit to a new level: casually approaching affluent strangers in Manhattan, he would tip his hat, give a little bow, and introduce himself as a former acquaintance.

After a few minutes smooth talking, he would politely ask: “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Most surrendered their watch, occasionally their money. It would have been “bad manners” not to have obliged an old friend, and embarrassing to admit you could not remember them.

In 1849 he was arrested when one of his victims, Thomas McDonald, once the proud owner of a gold pocket watch, alerted a policeman.

William Thompson’s brazen deceptions inspired Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857). The novel describes a boat sailing down the Mississippi, loaded with con men selling quack medicines and stock in failing companies.

2. Gregor MacGregor, the super scammer who sold an imaginary country

This debonair Scottish war veteran reinvented himself as the “Cazique” and owner of a place called Poyais in Central America.

Times were auspicious for impostors after the Napoleonic War, when the lure of fortune proved irresistible. MacGregor presented maps and statistics about Poyais in a splendid leather-bound guidebook. A commentary by Dr Thomas Strangeways (MacGregor himself) described friendly natives, chunks of gold lining riverbeds, trees overflowing with fruit. No smart investor could pass the opportunity by.

Hundreds of people between 1822-38 invested the modern equivalent of €4bn in MacGregor’s heaven on earth. Some 250 emigrated and were dumped in a stretch of wilderness in Honduras. MacGregor got away with it, and many of his victims died of malaria.

3. Bertha Heyman — the “confidence queen”

“Big Bertha” Heyman was a Prussian migrant who specialised in fleecing wealthy gentlemen by pretending to be a rich widow, unable to access her fortune.

Bertha’s charade began the moment she arrived in USA in 1878. She checked in at one of the best hotels with her maid and manservant, and bragged about having influential friends. Her first victim was a sleeping car conductor she met on a train from Chicago. She showed him a mansion on a large estate that she claimed was hers, and wanted him to manage. But until her agent paid her inheritance, she needed to borrow some money. The tale, repeated time and again, was so plausible that men rushed forward in droves to advance money in return for a cut of her fortune. “I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be skinned,” Heyman sniggered. The New York City police dubbed her: “The boldest and most expert of the many female adventuresses who infest the country.”

4. Charles Ponzi — “the Boston swindler”

Ponzi, who claimed he was born in Parma, Italy, arrived in Boston in 1903 “with $2.50 in cash and $1m in hopes”. While employed as a waiter, he was fired for shortchanging customers. Later, he was imprisoned for presenting a forged cheque in Canada. Finding a loophole in the postal system, Ponzi got his friends to bulk-buy international postal reply coupons in countries where they were available cheaply, and send them to him in USA. He then swapped them for American stamps of a higher value, which he sold at a profit.

During the 1920s he promised investors a 100% return in just 90 days. When dividends were due, many agreed to reinvest, so he seldom needed to pay out. He is believed to have raked in some $15m, and could afford gold walking canes, a custom-built limousine, and a mansion. Convicted of fraud, Ponzi ended up in prison.

5. Victor Lustig and the Eiffel Tower sale

In 1925 this hoaxer from Bohemia posed as a French government official to “sell” the Eiffel Tower as scrap. Having commissioned stationery carrying an official government seal, he wrote to bosses in the French scrap metal industry, inviting them to a meeting at a Paris hotel.

“Because of engineering faults [and] costly repairs”, he announced, “the tearing down of the Eiffel Tower has become mandatory.” The tower would be sold to the highest bidder. Twelve bids quickly flowed in. The winner, businessman André Poisson, was too embarrassed to inform the French police that he had been conned.

6. Gerd Heidemann and the forged Hitler Diaries

In 1983 Heidemann stunned the world by claiming he had unearthed Hitler’s diaries.

He said he had obtained all 60 volumes from a general in the East German Army who had pulled them from a burning Nazi aeroplane that had crashed in 1945. Ever since he had kept them hidden in a hayloft.

Stern magazine was duped into paying Heidemann over €2.5m for them, and eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper declared them authentic, but tests on the paper found it was too modern. Soon the true story unravelled. Heidemann had obtained the diaries from Konrad Kujau, a dealer in Nazi mementoes who supplemented genuine artefacts with fakes, and was an excellent imitator of handwriting. Heidemann and Kujau were sent to prison, in common with a host of tricksters before them. Writer Edgar Alan Poe said back in 1843 that the qualities of successful diddlers included: audacity, ingenuity, perseverance, impertinence… and a grin.

Phishing signs of a scam message or phone call

  • Spelling mistakes and/or poor grammar.
  • Generic greeting: ‘dear customer’, or “Hi” followed by email address.
  • Request for a fee up front to release a fortune.
  • Asks for credit card security code, pin, or passwords.
  • A warning to act now.

What to do if you get one:

  • Don’t reveal any financial details. No bona fide organisation will ever ask for these.
  • Don’t open attachments or click on links unless 100% sure they’re genuine. They might infect your computer with a virus.
  • Trust your instincts. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Ireland’s Commission for Communications Regulation advises:

  • Don’t call back any phone number you don’t recognise.
  • Don’t return calls to unknown international numbers.

The European Consumer Centre Ireland (https://www.eccireland.ie/popular-consumer-topics/scams/) adds:

  • If you have already sent money, do not send any more. If you have sent bank details, notify your bank.
  • If you think you have been the victim of fraud, report it to your local Garda station immediately.

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