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Scams

“Reinvest, and tell your friends!”

— Charles Ponzi

There’s a whole class of sneaky behavior that’s designed to move money from one pocket to another under false pretenses. These con games are often just greedy and dishonest, but can sometimes be clever and creative as well.

I’d feel worse about making a big deal about these crooked schemes if there weren’t such a cross-pollenation between the most dishonest bamboozles and the sales pitches that fall like rain in every part of the world where mass media and commerce tryst.

After all, the U.S. $45 radionic amulet or the environmentally-safe EuroWash Laundry Ball in the new age catalog, “free trade” agreements, website privacy policies, nature shows, public opinion polls, “reduced fat” food, the evening news, expert testimony and advertisements disguised as money all use a language of bogus claims and deceptive advertising that they share with more amusing and more blatant scams.


Capitalism, with its perpetual shell-game of paper money, plastic credit and the like, has been susceptible to con artists from the beginning. Check out such extraordinary popular delusions as The South Sea Bubble, Holland’s remarkable 17th Century Tulip Mania, The Mississippi Scheme, and the fabulous internet stock bubble — seems like only yesterday!

Perhaps you’ve heard of Charles Ponzi’s famous scheme. The classic bubble has been repeated in various forms ever since, the chaos left in their wake toppled the government of Albania in 1997, and yet more recently, caused no end of trouble in South Africa.

Ivar Kreuger built a marvelous bubble out of a match company early in the last century, but it collapsed in dramatic fashion in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash.

Pyramid Schemes (like the “Make Money Fast” epidemic) — Ponzi on a Xerox budget — are only a percentage of the many scams to proliferate on-line. An early favorite: the Sexygirls Scam, in which a “free” program for viewing naughty pictures quietly took over the users’ modems to call pricy toll-numbers in Moldova.


Did someone say Enron? WorldCom? Just two in a long line of respectable, white-collar thefts. Ask Joe Bob Briggs how they pulled it off.

Not that employees of crooked companies are completely helpless.


“Psychic” Mary Elaine Stevenson managed to convince some of her clients to bring to her office certain ritual supplies, including a spoonful of dirt and loads and loads of cash. Upon spreading the cash around the room, she’d declare that it was cursed and offer to dispose of it safely. Heh.


The 419 Coalition has a good page with information about the “Nigerian Scam.” You know — the one where you get an email from a relative of some corrupt government official in a troubled foreign land who wants you to help her smuggle an enormous amount of money out of the country in exchange for a sizeable share of the loot. Sure enough, many dishonest people fall for this rewarmed Spanish Prisoner con.

But read what happened when some wise guy led the fraudsters on for a while — and if you liked that, you’ll like this one and this one too — and if you liked those, you’ve got to read the one where the pranksters actually got the con artists to cough up some up-front money, or to carve a wooden replica of a Commodore 64 computer! If you want to get in on this sport of baiting the scammers, take a look at the 419 Eater site for some tips.

Check out Quatloos: Cyber-Museum of Scams & Frauds for a good look at some of today’s most common too-good-to-be-true get rich quick scams.

You can also read up on how Barry Minkow has capitalized on his conviction for the ZZZZ Best bubble by going on the business ethics lecture circuit. A tip of the hat as well to the scam artists who called themselves the Baron and Baroness von Bressensdorf and were able to afford a titled lifestyle by keeping an investment house bubble going for almost 50 years before their recent arrests in North Carolina.


A fellow named James Reavis used patient cunning to plant documents hither and yon which seemed to give him an open and shut legal claim to almost the entire state of Arizona. He almost got away with it. Read the amazing and amusing story of The Man Who Stole Arizona — you won’t be disappointed.


Mel Spillman falsified wills and other documents, using his position as a probate consultant to skim $5 million (U.S.) from the estates of over a hundred people who died without other heirs.


Governments are swindles of the crude “protection racket” style that use the Stockholm Syndrome with panache to transform themselves from resented to wildly popular. They don’t even play by their own rules — for instance, the local government of Washington, D.C. double-billed people for parking and traffic tickets, threatening to withhold auto registration or “boot” the cars of owners who did not pay up. Since 1981, D.C. has raked in (U.S.) $17.8 million with 829,000 illegitimate fines.


The ballad of Billie Sol Estes is an entertaining one. He manipulated federal farm aid programs and investors with a phantom fertilizer company back in the day, and evidently he’s still up to no good.


P.T. Barnum’s many scams were often more whimsical and entertaining than cynical and dishonest, which is not to say that he didn’t pocket the cash at day’s end with a smile on his face.


A Korean fellow named Cho sent form letters to hundreds of more-or-less randomly selected corporate executives, threatening to expose their adulterous behavior unless they paid him off. Nine execs paid up, but then Cho got greedy and overreached. “I thought it would be a success if I got wired 5 million won, and kept sending the letter after receiving 9 million won,” he said after getting caught.


Enter Norman Tweed Whitaker, international chess master and con-man of mystery — tried to squeeze money out of the Lindberghs during the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, ended up doing time in Alcatraz.


Wanted con-man David Stanley changed his name to “Michael Fenne,” and did what any good sneak-on-the-make in the ’90s would do — he decided to create an internet start-up.


Snake-oil salesmen have been a colorful part of the landscape since the beginning. Check out the weight-reduction eyeglasses and the foot-pumped breast enlarger at The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.

One of the best and brightest was Dr. John Romulus Brinkley whose name will be forever associated with the goat glands he surgically installed in the scrota of men who wanted to be as horny as the hooved ones. He rode the goat gland craze to media and political power, and remains perhaps the king of American quacks and con men.


Madison Priest created a revolutionary technology that would allow ordinary phone lines to transmit data into people’s homes at unprecedented rates — faster by far than fiber optics. He staged stunning demonstrations that convinced private investors and companies like Blockbuster and Intel to pitch money into the project. But he was taking them for a ride.


The town of Palisade, Nevada nurtured a tourist-attracting reputation as the toughest town in the American West for years by staging realistic gunfights for out-of-towners. And speaking of tourist attractions, a crash-landing flying saucer turned out to be just the thing to boost the economy of Roswell, New Mexico.


The royally appointed court jester of the island nation of Tonga allegedly ran off with the equivalent of half the government’s annual budget when he was trusted to invest the royal trust fund. What kind of king goes to his jester for investment advice anyway?


You can find out plenty on-line about The Dominion of Melchizedek, a wannabe island nation and home to many a sweet little fraud — perhaps a distant cousin to Drunvalo Melchezidek, who’s on-line hawking holy super-ionized water (see also: laundry balls).

A group of con artists in China told hundreds of people that, for a small fee, they would officially witness their death-defying feats for the Guinness Book of World Records. “One man bungee-jumped from a helicopter, another spent 25 days perched on a steel wire suspended across a gorge,” but the “witnesses” just took the money and ran.


And on the scam front also, though it ended up being a better media hack than a money maker, was www.ourfirsttime.com, which advertised that it would let web surfers watch two teenagers lose their respective virginities in live streaming video.

Which reminds me a bit of Coïncidence Design — a site that promises to collect intelligence on your prospective lover and coördinate a “chance” meeting.

VirginMe.com promises a “doctor-approved scientific breakthrough that will transform a non-virgin girl into a complete virgin! Experience the pain and bleeding on the first night as if you were a real virgin!”


Also on-line is the FBI report on Harold Jesse Berney, who in the 1950s managed to get various people to invest over (U.S.) $50,000 in his plans to manufacture amazing machines he’d learned about on one of his trips to the planet Venus.


Scams are so fun that even the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has gotten in on the act. The SEC, which, despite the similarity of its name to Ponzi’s Securities Exchange Company, is allegedly in the business of trying to keep things clean, set up a number of fake companies on-line, which made grandiose claims in order to lure gullible investors (who then get this punchline).

Barry Minkow
Barry Minkow

P.T. Barnum
P.T. Barnum

James Reavis
James Reavis

Charles Ponzi
Charles Ponzi

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On This Day in SniggleryOctober 31, 1974: A radio drama about deadly bacteria from outer space gets misinterpreted as a news event by hundreds of panicky listeners. (See News Trolls for more of this sort of thing)