The 10 Most Notorious Scammers of All Time
Today, when trying to match the word “scammer” to a face, the average internet user (myself included) thinks of some Nigerian scam artist hiding in the back of his cyber-café… A serious mistake! Or rather, a serious lack of culture! Why? Simply because history has shown that men far more accomplished than these have displayed ingenuity, charisma, audacity, ambition, and imagination infinitely greater than our everyday nuisances. The scammers we will introduce to you in this article have (or had) genuine talents dedicated to deception… until they were caught by the law! Regardless of whether we like them or not, they deserve the superlatives used in this introduction.
Let’s now delve into the “fascinating” world of the greatest scammers of all time!
Charles Ponzi: The “master”
We’ll call him the “master.” Yes, even among villains, such a role exists… Charles Ponzi was a little Italian who found himself in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Little,” not in terms of his ambition but rather his wallet, which was said to contain only $2.50…
In 1919, he became the instigator of a scam that would later bear his name: The “Ponzi Scheme” The principle is simple and relies solely on the trust and reputation afforded to the scammer by his victims. It involves creating an investment fund that allows those who deposit money to earn interest on their invested funds. The catch: the interest comes from the money deposited by new investors, not from profits made by the “banker” in the stock market. This system works as long as the pool of investors grows but is doomed to collapse once the number of new arrivals becomes too small or too many people want to withdraw their money…
Bernard Madoff: The student who surpasses the “master”
Sentenced to 150 years in prison, Bernard Madoff is the worthy “heir” of Charles Ponzi! He is a man of all superlatives:
- 8848 complaints against him
- A scam worth $65 billion (the largest in history)
- $290 million spent on lawyers and consultants to recover scattered money from the scam…
Bernard Madoff was an American businessman who made his fortune by convincing wealthy individuals to invest in an investment fund he had created. He managed to carry out a vast scam that lasted nearly 40 years… until the 2008 financial crisis exposed the fraud. He didn’t invent anything, as he simply followed principles established several decades earlier by Charles Ponzi. However, he did manage to win the trust of major investors such as banks and stars like Spielberg!
Christophe Rocancourt: The charming… and especially smooth-talking “chameleon”
We kind of like this guy. Firstly, because he’s French just like us writing this article, and mainly because he demonstrated extraordinary audacity. He is a well-known scam artist who, in particular, conned numerous American celebrities by gaining their trust. He would take on their identities by reading their biographies, which allowed him to learn about their interests and integrate into their lives. Using multiple identities (boxer, wealthy heir of the Rockefeller family…), he managed to scam French decorator Pierre Lange, actor Mickey Rourke, and Buddy Ochoa.
And the best part: When he arrived in the USA, Christophe Rocancourt did not speak a word of English! He reportedly learned the language by comparing an American and a French bible – a fun legend that you don’t have to believe!
Victor Lustig: The Man who Sold the Eiffel Tower
Just like Christophe Rocancourt, who had, during one period of his life, conned Californian drug traffickers, Victor Lustig was a man who wasn’t afraid of much. That’s how he crossed paths with Al Capone, claiming to sell money-printing machines… Quite a start to a career in fraud 😉 .
Later, he pulled off his “big hit” by capitalizing on daily news. In the 1920s, the news that caught his attention was the French government’s difficulty in maintaining the Eiffel Tower’s finances. One journalist at the time humorously suggested selling the Eiffel Tower to cover the state’s debts. This was all Victor Lustig needed to impersonate a high-ranking French official and launch a bid for scrap metal dealers. One of them accepted and bought the famous tower for 100,000 Francs… The ironic part: the guy who got scammed never filed a complaint, ashamed of being fooled.
Frank Abagnale Junior: The scam artist turned anti-fraud consultant
This scam artist was so good, he inspired the famous movie “Catch Me If You Can” starring Leonardo Di Caprio! Initially, he made up jobs for himself without any formal education:
- Airline pilot
He excelled in forgery and evasion. Despite some stints in prison, he is now a millionaire and primarily a fraud consultant for his own account. Isn’t life beautiful? 😉 For a treat, here’s the trailer of the movie mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph, summarizing his life!
Grégory Zaoui: The Carbon Tax Fraud
Does the term ‘carbon tax fraud’ ring a bell? It should, as it is sometimes considered the “scam of the century”: it allowed for nearly €1.5 billion to be siphoned from the French government in just a few months! Grégory Zaoui is one of the few initiators of this unparalleled scam.
Simply explained, how did it work? Since a 2005 climate agreement, each country has what we call quotas (or “pollution rights”). If a country pollutes less, it can sell them, but if it pollutes too much, it has to buy more… Grégory Zaoui and his accomplices found a trick by buying tax-free pollution rights from certain countries and selling them, including tax, to France. Genius, right? Well, I think so.
Alfred Sirven: Corruption Above All
Alfred Sirven is known to some as the “scammer of the century”! As the number 2 at Elf in the 90s, he executed an incredible embezzlement by creating dozens of accounts (over 300) leading to offshore tax havens. His main weapon: an unparalleled network of corrupt African businessmen.
Gilbert Chikli: The originator of the “Fake President Fraud”
In recent years, we have regularly heard about “Fake President fraud“. Gilbert Chikli is undeniably the father of this scam. This fraud involves thoroughly studying the workings of a company, both its hierarchical and operational aspects. After a long and detailed study, the man takes action by pretending to be an executive and orders a staff member to make a transfer to an external account. Does that sound impossible? Yet, among the victims, you’ll find La Banque Postale, Crédit Lyonnais, Galeries Lafayette, and even Disneyland Paris…
In 2020, a trial was opened against him for a new case: he is accused of having embezzled money by impersonating the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Elizabeth Holmes: The “Blood” Lady
What happens when a brilliant and ambitious Stanford student encounters the health technology industry? You get Theranos, the company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, whose meteoric rise and spectacular fall made headlines.
Born on February 3, 1984, in Washington, Holmes chose to leave Stanford in 2003 to devote herself full-time to Theranos, a start-up dedicated to medical services. Her vision? To revolutionize blood tests by offering a fast, economical system that only required a drop of blood. To achieve this, she managed to convince numerous investors, even managing to forge a partnership with the pharmacy chain Walgreens Co! 😲
The investigative work by journalist John Carreyrou in 2015 brought fraudulent practices to light: the famous “revolutionary” blood tests were actually conducted by traditional labs, while Elizabeth and her team falsified documents to cover up the sham.
This supposed “prodigy” found herself at the heart of a judicial and media storm… In 2022, she was found guilty of defrauding investors and sentenced to over 11 years in prison. The young woman, who, at the height of her success, was compared to Steve Jobs and whose fortune was estimated at $4.5 billion by Forbes, saw her empire melt away…
Aldo Bonassoli: The Sniffer Plane Scam…
We end with a genius… Aldo Bonassoli is the instigator of a scam that cost the French state several hundred million euros and triggered a real scandal in 1983: the sniffer plane scam. This man, a physicist, claimed to have discovered a process allowing for the detection of oil from an airplane. This technique, which in reality was a complete fabrication, could, according to him and his accomplices, save massive drilling costs. Thanks to an effective network and extraordinary powers of persuasion, he attracted the attention of the oil group Elf, which belonged to the state at that time… even making his project a state defense secret!
This top 10 comes to an end… Don’t hesitate to add a comment if you think a famous scammer deserves a spot on this page! Enjoy 🙂