There have been many movies and even whole television series dedicated to the idea of the scam artist. The scam artist is someone who manages, usually by being incredibly charming, to defraud others out of their cash and belongings. They can be a small-time petty crook, or the kind with ambitions who goes after millionaires. Most of the time, it seems like their stories are stranger than fiction – after all, who would fall for one of these scams?
The truth is, the stories have to come from somewhere. There have been con artists throughout history who have made off with millions, and some of them never even had to pay the price. We admire their skill and their bravery – and, perhaps just a little, wish that we could live their lives. But when there is a comeuppance to pay, most of them fall hard. What makes a truly great con artist is one who manages to bounce back and walk away better off, even when they get caught.
The 15 scam artists we have gathered information on are amongst the best of the best. You will be amazed at just how much money they managed to get away with. And, admit it: you would probably fall for half of these scams just as much as the victims did, if not all of them. Keep these cases in mind next time you come across an opportunity that seems too good to be true, no matter how charming the seller might be!
15 Marc Dreier
Dreier LLP had its assets frozen in 2009, at which point it was discovered to have $59 million in assets and $42 million in liabilities. Marc Dreier had received more than $4 million personally from the business. So what did he do? Well, he put together a Ponzi scheme, one of the most classic scams out there. He was a lawyer at the time, but since being caught, has been disbarred. The funny thing about all of this is that he was actually highly successful in his law practice, and made far more money before he started defrauding people than when he turned to this method. He owned an $18 million yacht and several lavish homes, and he started Dreier LLP to cover 5 cities. He even brought in superstar lawyers who had represented celebrities in court. Some of the high-profile victims of his law scam included Elvis Costello, Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent, Maria Sharapova, and Jon Bon Jovi.
14 Barry Jay Minkow
When he started his own company in high school, Minkow called it ZZZZ Best. It turned out to be anything but. The self-claimed successful carpet cleaning and restoration company was actually little more than a front for a Ponzi scheme. When it collapsed in 1987, investors were left short by $100 million, making it one of the largest investment frauds ever committed by a single individual. Even after going to jail, he has continued to run various frauds, being sentenced a total of 3 times now. He has been convicted of racketeering, securities fraud, embezzlement, mail fraud, bank fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, credit card fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Some of those charges were levelled at him after he became a “reformed” pastor! He even tried to defraud his own church. It seems like this leopard really can’t change his spots. His latest guilty plea came in 2014, and he is expected to stay in prison until at least 2019.
13 Jim Norman
Jim Norman is now serving 20 years in prison, but before that, he was a musician based in Toronto. Apparently it wasn’t making him enough money, because he decided to go ahead and try something else – a multi-million dollar confidence scam. He claimed that money was being held illegally because of patriot act restrictions, and that if people would give him a little bit of money to get it out, they would profit handsomely. Each of the victims of the scam ended up putting millions into it, as he seemed to have it all worked out. They would pay him, he would release the money, this would feed into his company, and he would be able to pay them back. Of course, none of that ever happened. He simply took the money and then went on his way. He had to pay back more than $3 million, but it seems that he stole at least $7 million through his scheme – not to mention his income from various records he had made earlier in his career.
12 Jesse Willims
You will probably have seen plenty of examples of the kind of scam that Jesse Willims ran. He would put out internet advertisements offering free trials of products. When a customer gave away their credit card details, he would send them the worthless product (or, in many cases, not). Then he would start charging their card right away, leaving them no way to cancel the payments. He made more than $359 million over the course of the scam, between 2007 and 2012. His products included weight loss pills, colon cleansers, and teeth whiteners, all of which were utterly useless. He was barred from trading in this way ever again and forced to settle large amounts of cases when he was finally caught. Let this be a lesson to anyone who doesn’t know it already: a free trial is never actually free. Each of the victims would see spiralling charges as soon as the sample was ordered.
11 Gary Bellchambers
At home in Essex, Gary Bellchambers lived a modest life in a small house with an old car. But in Thailand it was a different story. There he was known as The Man, and had a string of luxury homes as well as a share in a huge yacht. He was the head of a criminal network which sold counterfeit golf clubs on eBay, which turned out to be the biggest scam ever run on the site. The golf balls and accessories were also fake, and some of the balls would even explode when they were hit with a club. The scam lasted between 2003 and 2008 before someone finally shopped them to the police. At one stage, he was earning £73,000 a month. The kicker: he was only caught because he missed a customer's email and didn’t give them a refund, causing them to complain to trading standards. Sloppy work!
Although Pacnet were never actually involved in a scam themselves, this payment processor caused huge controversy when it was revealed that they knowingly laundered money for those who did. Millions of dollars passed through their systems, much of it coming from scams that targeted the elderly, over a 20-year period. Many of the victims lost their entire life savings, with schemes that asked them to write cheques to different companies. Once a victim was found who fell for one scam, many others would pile in, seeking to take advantage and drain them dry. Pacnet took a small percentage of each payment made as a commission fee. They were eventually caught and all of their assets were frozen, but they had already made a whole load of cash from each of the fraudulent payments. It makes sense as a tactic: when normal payment processors might flag your payments as fraud, you can simply set up your own processor so that no concerns are ever raised.
9 Chris Rocancourt
Here’s a case of a man who had balls of steel. You might be surprised to see images of Christopher Rocancourt on the arm of famous beauties like Naomi Campbell, but that’s just how far he was willing to take his con. He pretended that he was a French offshoot of the Rockefeller dynasty, even without any real evidence to back it up. He didn’t have the right DNA for starters, but he was so charming and persuasive that no one checked up on his claims for a long time. He started to mix in exciting circles and dated a whole string of beautiful and famous women. He schmoozed his way into $40 million with his completely fake identity. All it would have taken was for a real Rockefeller to question him and the whole thing would have fallen apart – as it eventually did, once he had lived the high life for far longer than it should have lasted.
8 Frank Abagnale
You probably know all about Frank Abagnale thanks to the fact that he was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film about his life, Catch Me If You Can. This was actually based on the book of the same name that he wrote about his exploits. It has made him one of the most famous conmen ever, and for good reason. In his career he would impersonate various people or positions of power. He was a pilot, a paediatrician, and even worked for the Attorney General of Louisiana, all without having any of the qualifications he claimed to have. He made over $2.5 million through his schemes, which also included cashing bad cheques. He actually did pass the bar exam earlier in his life, although not where and when he claimed to have done. This set off an exciting chase from the law, but he was of course eventually caught. Then he made it all back with book sales and movie rights.
7 Cassie Chadwick
Is there any scam more classic than pretending to be someone you’re not in order to access funds? It’s a tale as old as time, and it has been repeated many times throughout history. Chadwick may well have been the most successful conwoman to ever attempt it, however. She claimed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie in 1897. Of course, at that time, you couldn’t just take a DNA test. She managed to keep up the story for an incredible 8 years. Records are not completely clear, but we do know that she managed to make somewhere between 10 and £20 million. That’s not bad at all for 8 years of just saying your father is someone he isn’t. It’s the kind of scam that could never work today, so Cassie’s record will certainly stand the test of time. We have to salute her artistry.
6 Lou Pearlman
Lou Pearlman got away with his con for a while because it seemed so unlikely that he would be committing something like that. He was a record producer who also managed lots of boy bands in the 1990s, including the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. However, business was not as good in the 2000s, and in 2006 he was arrested for fraud. It turned out that he was running one of the biggest and longest Ponzi schemes in history, which ran up more than $300 million in debts. He was convicted for up to 25 years, but died in 2016 behind bars. He also ran several other scams, such as a talent agency which would force models to pay for their own photoshoots in order to make money. He was forced into bankruptcy after arrest and many of his assets were sold off to pay the debts his scheme had accrued – including a historic train station he owned, which sold for $34 million.
A man who refers to himself only as Jim recently shared his story as a conman. He ran over 30 fraudulent businesses over 10 years, dealing in gold coins, time shares, oil and gas leases, and more. He made millions of dollars, but was eventually caught and arrested in 2004. At that time, his scam was to sell computer kiosks to business owners where customers could go and use the internet for a small fee. They would tell business owners that they could make $30,000 a year and sell the machines at a large mark-up, but it was all a lie – they would never make that much cash. He had 100 employees at the time of the raid, who were funded by the $17 million they took from investors over the course of 8 months. He was sentenced to 37 months and is now reformed – though he probably wishes he wasn’t, as he ended up broke and suffering from emphysema.
4 Gilbert Chikli
This French-Israeli conman saw that there was a land of vast opportunity awaiting him in China. He created a con known as the fake CEO or business email compromise scam which has inspired many copycats. Since he started out, more than $1.8 billion was lost to the scheme in just over 2 years, most of it from American companies. Chikli would impersonate a top executive or intelligence agent and go to a large company. He would then convince one of the employees to transfer money to his bank accounts. This money was then laundered through China and Hong Kong so that he could keep it without questions. He was convicted of defrauding companies of 6.1 million euros, but only had to pay a 1 million euro fine and serve a 7-year sentence. He still owns immense homes and lives openly in Israel without having served a moment of his time.
3 Charles Ponzi
You know this guy must have been good at what he did if there is a whole type of scam named after him. The Ponzi scheme was indeed first started by Charles Ponzi, and it’s a mad idea which can never last for long. In the 1920s, he tricked New England residents in their thousands by getting them to invest in a postage stamp speculation fund. The interest rate for banks was 5% over a year at that time, but he promised 50% plus their investment back in 45 days and 100% in 90 days. He used later investors to pay off the earlier ones, even though he started out with a method that almost worked in the first place. It was easier just to not bother and to trick everyone. The scam made him millions of dollars, though he ended up losing it all and going to prison in the end.
2 Bernard Madoff
His name is almost a by-word for conman, and Madoff became incredibly famous for his high-profile scam. He used to be the non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, giving him a position of authority that simply could not be doubted. That is, until he started his own Ponzi scheme. It turned out to be the largest financial fraud in US history, which only ended with his arrest in 2008. It was actually his own sons that reported him to authorities after he admitted to them that he had made everything up. Sadly, one of them committed suicide as a result, while the other died of lymphoma. He started his scam back in the 1980s, and it’s thought that he ran up $18 billion in losses to his investors. He would falsify trade reports to make it look as though profits had been made, but these were all part of the lie. He would actually bank the money in China, then pay off clients with money given by others.
1 Wolfgang Beltracchi
This guy had to take the number one spot for the sheer audacity of his scams. Beltracchi was quite a talented artist, but he had a particular skill that turned out to be the real money maker. He could imitate the style of just about any painter from any era. Rather than trying to copy famous paintings and then sell them on, or switch them for the real thing in museums, he chose another method. He would paint something that he imagined could have been done by the artist in question, then sold it as an undiscovered work. He even had his wife pose with the paintings for photographs with an old camera, making it look as though she was her own grandmother posing with them in the past. He made over 300 paintings with incredible attention to detail, including checking the chemical make-up of paints and canvases to check that they were period appropriate. It all came to an end in 2010 when one type of paint slipped under the radar and they were exposed. Since then, he has made much of his fortune (estimated at $46 million in his trial, but thought to be much more than that) back through selling his own works.