TOP 7 INFAMOUS CONMEN
1. FRANK ABAGNALE
Frank Abagnale started taking risks at an early age. Always one to find a new way around the system, Frank escalated the risks with each new scheme. He seemed driven to make each one bolder than the last. One thing that stood out about Frank was his youth and sheer boldness. Frank liked to make a quick turnover but didn’t shy away from the long con. From drafting off of others’ banking accounts by forging his own account number on their deposit slip to masquerading as a licensed jetliner pilot, he liked to play it hot and loose. After nearly a year of “playing doctor” as a medical supervisor, he was finally caught in France and did a short stint in the slammer. Very short, it turned out, as he escaped from prison by passing himself off as an officer for the Bureau of Prisons. After being recaptured, he spent five years in prison before agreeing to work for the U.S. Government in training others how to detect fraud. As the head of his own consulting firm, he now makes millions of dollars by trying something completely different: earning his money legitimately.
2. CHARLES PONZI
Most of us have heard the term “Ponzi scheme.” It serves as a cautionary tale. Unmitigated greed on the part of both the conman and the target rarely ends well. Ponzi decided at a young age that his only goal in life was to make money, lots of it. And he didn’t care where it came from. Arriving in America with only $2.50 to his name, Ponzi quickly rose through the ranks of shady investment bankers, being so bold as to con the cons. After being busted for check fraud and serving time in prison, Ponzi was more determined than ever to take every dime that would come his way. His biggest con began legitimately, offering devalued stock at an incredible markup, then showing his own profits to potential investors. Promising huge returns and a quick profit, many normally astute investors let the promise of easy money keep them from peeking behind the curtain. But before long people began asking questions and wanted a full accounting. Surprise. There was no money. Those who had invested ended up losing every penny entrusted to Ponzi. Now it was time to pay the piper. After a brief escape from prison, Ponzi served his term and then was deported back to his native Italy. Life delivered a final ironic twist to the tale of Ponzi the conman. For a man who was driven to ruin others in his pursuit of money, he ended up in exile and died pennilessly.
3. VICTOR LUSTIG
Ever wish you had a machine that would crank out money as it was needed? Evidently, you’re not alone because it was that very machine that Lustig sold to numerous investors. Lustig’s niche in the con world was the ability to see a need and fill it. He worked wonders at making the impossible seem quite plausible. His most infamous con was selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal, not once, but twice. The first buyer was too embarrassed to go to the authorities once he realized how gullible he had been, leaving the door wide open for Lustig to return a few years later and revisit his most daring con. Authorities were able to finally catch up with him and charged him with counterfeiting. Lustig was sentenced to twenty years in Alcatraz. After a transfer to Springfield, he died quietly from pneumonia.
4. GEORGE PARKER
Parker was a conman’s conman. His exploits were so outrageous as to defy belief. And yet his cons worked like a charm. He had an uncanny instinct for drawing gullible investors with what would seem like obviously crackpot ideas. He sold the Brooklyn Bridge on a regular basis for years. He seemed to enjoy targeting well-known landmarks during his career. Some of his best “sales” came from conning marks into buying Grant’s Tomb, Madison Square Garden, and the Statue of Liberty, as well as other well-known American iconic locations. His audacity led to the commonly used phrase, “And if ya believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell ya.” Considered one of the best “hoaxers” of all time, he died in prison, quite popular with his fellow inmates who enjoyed his tales of unbelievable scams.
5. SOAPY SMITH
Soapy Smith was the master of the shill game. By promising something and delivering nothing he helped perfect the art of the street corner con. His signature con was selling bars of soap on a street corner, waiting until a crowd had gathered, and then making a show of wrapping a couple of bars with hundred dollar bills inside. Using a “plant” to find the first bill, he would then use sleight of hand to remove the remaining bill, as the crowd was worked into a frenzy paying for a bar of soap that “might” have the lucky bill in it. At times the crowd grew so rowdy he would auction off the bars of soap to the money-hungry crowd. Though he was a master of manipulation, his shady ways eventually caught up with him. Soapy was shot to death, by a group he tried to swindle while playing cards.
6. JAMES HOGUE
Hogue’s specialty in the con world was the burgeoning art of identity theft. While certainly not the first to try this con, he was certainly one of the most persistent. Using the identity of dead infants he slowly worked his way up the ladder. First, he attended Palo Alto High School using the birth information of a child who would have been sixteen years of age. This is while Hogue was actually eleven years older than his claimed identity. You’d think that might have made him stick out. But he had such an affable nature and favored the status of “orphan” that most people simply took him at his word. Emboldened by the ease of his first con, Hogue applied and was accepted to Princeton University posing as a self-educated orphan. He was accepted, granted financial aid, and even made the track team and joined the Ivy Club. Eventually exposed, Hogue spent a short stint in the slammer but made headlines again shortly after by working for Harvard University as a security guard. It was only after numerous valuables from Harvard’s museum turned up missing that his fake identity became known. Using his charm he pleaded down to all the charges and only received a ten-year sentence.
7. BERNARD CORNFELD
Bernard Cornfeld is considered one of the most dangerous forms of conmen: the conman in the business suit. A natural salesman, he used loopholes in his businesses to make himself a robber baron on a worldwide stage. He utilized loopholes in the laws of different countries and strategically placed his businesses close to borders in case of the need to make a mad dash to a more loophole-friendly environment. While making large profits for his biggest investors, Bernard became emboldened and felt untouchable. With an estimated personal fortune of over a hundred million dollars, Bernard couldn’t resist skimming off the top of monies due to his employees. He was charged by Swiss authorities with fraud and spent less than a year in jail. He then returned to Beverly Hills and lived a very comfortable life for the next two decades before dying of a cerebral aneurysm. Men like Bernard Cornfeld led the way for a wave of similar conmen who hid behind a business suit and put their own megalomaniacal egos above all else in the pursuit of power. We owe his business model for Club Fed being populated by the likes of men such as Bernard Madoff.