Nigerian Prince: The 5 Biggest Scams In History

We’ve all gotten emails from the wayward Nigerian prince who’s lost his way. So much money and nowhere to put it — if he could just use your bank account real quick to park that $7,000,000, you’ll be paid a king’s (prince’s) ransom.

Those were the good old days, when the Sakawa boys were at the internet cafes, putting in the work to scam you one-on-one. Now, information is stolen on an industrial scale. Type “equifax” into Google News and see what pops up…

All the gusto and panache of good, old-fashioned con men has been replaced by 1s and 0s. The battle for hearts and minds is over. Men lost, machines won. Now it’s about cold, hard data.

To honor the bygone era of intimate con artistry, we’ll take a look at the 5 greatest scams in history:

“The Eiffel Tower Is Costing Us An Arm And A Leg”

Image source/Wikipedia

The man who sold the Eiffel Tower twice. Victor Lustig, after reading a newspaper article bemoaning the problems Paris was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower, commissioned fake government documents and invited six prominent scrap metal dealers to a secret meeting where he introduced himself as the deputy director general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs.

Lustig explained that the cost of maintaining the Eiffel Tower was simply too high, and it would be melted down for scrap metal. He solicited a bribe from one of the men, Andre Poisson, to “secure the contract” and promptly fled France with a suitcase full of money.

He returned to Paris six months later and did the exact same thing with six different scrap metal dealers, but this time, would-be victim brought Lustig’s bogus documents to police before the deal could be completed and Lustig fled France for a second time.

 

 

“Housekeeping?”

Image source/LA Weekly

You seldom find good things at the good things at the end of the alphabet — that’s why “Z” is worth 10 points in Scrabble. Barry Minkow started ZZZZ Best, a carpet cleaning company, in his parents’ garage when he was 15. By the time he graduated high school in 1985, he had assembled a colorful cast of flunkies, crooked accountants, and mobsters to run his company.

In 1986, Minkow took the company public. He was the personification of the American dream, a self-made teenage millionaire. By 1987, his stake in the company was worth over $100 million, and by 1988, he was convicted of racketeering, securities fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, mail fraud, tax evasion, and bank fraud.

The story gets better. In prison, Minkow became a born-again Christian. When he got out five years later, he became a pastor, and member of his congregation asked him to look into an Orange County money management firm, suspecting all was not on the up-and-up.

Minkow alerted the authorities that the company was running a $300 million Ponzi scheme, which was the genesis of his for-profit investigative firm, the Fraud Discovery Institute, which itself turned out to be a fraud. Equal parts ironic and predictable, Minkow is back behind bars for stealing church money to fund the fraudulent Fraud Discovery Institute, which he used to short stocks before exposing damning corporate information gathered by the Fraud Discovery Institute. He is eligible for release in 2019.

 

 

“Would You Like To Buy An Empire?”

The Praetorian Guard was the Roman equivalent of the Secret Service; elite soldiers who served as the emperor’s personal bodyguards — except the Praetorian Guard had a habit of assassinating emperors and installing their own leaders.

After then-emperor Commodus was killed by the Pretorian Guard in 192 AD, they installed Pertinax as emperor, extracted a bribe from him, killed him three months later, and then auctioned off the title of “emperor” to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus offered 25,000 sesterii per solider — an offer the Pretorian Guard hastily accepted.

Three powerful generals caught wind of what the Praetorian Guard did (auctioned off the empire) and the one physically closest to Rome, Septimius Severus, brought his own army to the capital and disbanded the Praetorian Guard, banished them, and executed those responsible for Pertinax’s murder.

The Senate decreed Severus emperor and sentenced Julianus to death.

 

“That Is Not My Daughter”

Cassie Chadwick, birth name Elizabeth Bigly, opened her first fraudulent bank account in Ontario when she was just 14. She was caught and released (not unlike a fish), moved in with her sister in Cleveland, and set up shop as a psychic. She married and divorced twice, changed her identity a few times, opened up a brothel, and married a rich doctor in Cleveland named Leroy Chadwick.

During a trip to New York City, she convinced one of her husband’s lawyer friends, Dillon, to take her to Andrew Carnegie’s house. Upon returning, she dropped a fake check from Andrew Carnegie for $2 million on the ground for Dillon to find.

She then confessed that she was, in fact, Carnegie’s secret lovechild and swore Dillon to an oath of secrecy. As planned, Dillon gossiped like a schoolgirl back in Cleveland, and local banks lined up to offer Mrs. Chadwick AKA Ms. Carnegie huge loans under the assumption that her “dad” would cover her debts.

She borrowed between $10 and $20 million over the next eight years, correctly guessing no one would have the balls to ask Carnegie about his secret, illegitimate daughter. Her spending became legendary (she once bought a gold organ — not a heart or a lung but a big church piano) and she was known as the “Queen of Ohio” until a Massachusetts banker tried to call in a debt she couldn’t pay. She fled to New York, but was caught shortly thereafter wearing a money belt with over $100,000 ($2.5 million today) in it. 

Her trial was a media circus that Andrew Carnegie attended personally.

 

The GOAT

Give credit where credit is due. When your name becomes a noun, you’ve made it. Even if he didn’t “invent” the Ponzi scheme, Charles Ponzi holds the patent on it, so to speak.

An Italian immigrant to America, Ponzi rose to infamy by telling people he could double their money in 90 days using stamp arbitrage.

Early investors were paid out using new investors’ money — a great business model until you run out of new investors. Ponzi bilked investors out of $20 million in before his scam collapsed in the 1920s.

[insert House Of Cards joke here]