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Updated by Nick Kellet on Jul 08, 2018
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Famous Scams & Scam Artists

Sante Kimes

One of the most notorious American con artists of all time, Sante Kimes worked with her son Kenneth to run literally hundreds of scams on everyone around her. Sante Kimes was obsessed with the hustle, always looking for bigger and better scores. One of her favorite cons was burning down her own house for insurance money, but she also impersonated Elizabeth Taylor to gain access to Hollywood functions. Kimes was jailed in 1985 for forcibly enslaving her household staff, but when she was released her crimes took a turn for the worse. She murdered several people, including the 1998 murder of her landlady before she assumed her identity.

James Hogue

Hogue began his career as a scam artist at an early age. At just 16, he enrolled in a high school in California with a name he adopted from a deceased baby. What he is most known for is enrolling at Princeton University with a different assumed name, saying he was a self-taught orphan. He was found to be a fraud by a fellow student and was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. He also defrauded Harvard University, proving that no institution was safe from his con.

Charles Ponzi

Charles Ponzi came to the U.S. from Italy in 1903. In 1919, he established the Securities Exchange Co., which promised investors huge profits in just a few weeks. They were unaware that none of the funds were actually invested and that the profits came entirely from newly invested money. Thus, the Ponzi scheme was born.

Ponzi was charged with 86 counts of fraud in 1920 but pleaded guilty to only one. He died in 1949, but the swindle that bears his name lives on.

Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale is a former cheque con artist, forger and imposter who, for five years in the 1960s, passed bad cheques worth more than $2.5 million in 26 countries. The recent blockbuster film Catch Me If You Can is based on his life. His first experience of fraud was as a youth when he used his father’s Mobil card to buy car parts that he would then sell back to the gas station for a lower price. He did not realise that his father was the one who had to foot the bill and when he was eventually confronted with the fraud, his mother sent him for four months to a juvenile correction facility.After moving to New York, Frank lived solely on the income of his fraudulent activities. One of his most famous tricks was to print his own account number on fake bank deposit slips so that when clients of the bank deposited money, it would actually go in to his account. By the time the banks realised what had happened, Frank had taken $40,000 and run.For two years, Abagnale travelled around the world free by masquerading as a Pan Am pilot. He was able to abuse the professional courtesy of other airlines to provide free transport for competing airline pilots if they had to move to another city at short notice. When he was nearly caught leaving a plane, he changed his masquerade to that of a Doctor. He worked as a medical supervisor for 11 months without detection. At other times he worked as a lawyer and a teacher.He was eventually caught in France and spent six months in prison there. After that he was extradited to Sweden and imprisoned for a further six months. After a successful escape whilst travelling to the United States, he was finally given 12 years in Prison. He escaped from his prison by masquerading as an undercover officer of the Bureau of Prisons. He was once again captured in New York City and returned to jail. After serving only five years of his sentence, the US Federal Government offered him his freedom in return for helping the government against fraud and scam artists without pay.He currently runs Abagnale and Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company and is a multi-millionaire.

Benny Hinn

For you poor unfortunates uneducated in the ways of evangelical fundamentalism, Benny Hinn may be off your radar. Which is too bad. Because Benny Hinn is king of the Muppet-Showesque monstrosities known as faith healers. He's so good, that he makes you forget about their supposed real king, What's His Name of Nazareth. "So what?," you may ask. "So he's a faith-healing evangelical--I've got dozens of those under my bed. What's the big deal?"

Mr. Hinn has built his ministry on a few tenets. One is his gift of prophecy. Here are just a few of his better known predictions:

God will kill all the homosexuals by fire;
Castro will die in the 1990s;
An earthquake would destroy the American east coast, also in the 1990s;
JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF was going to make a personal appearance at Hinn's African crusade.

Needless to say, Jesus had a great deal going on that day and couldn't make it. Followers have still donated millions to Hinn, who lives in a $10 million house and drives a Mercedes SUV. Apparently there's, like, some kind of law against asking people to donate money to God and then buying bling with it instead, because the Senate Committee on Finance launched an investigation late last year. If they have hearings it'll be interesting to see if Jesus makes an appearance.

It takes a special kind of guy to make this list. False prophesies and wicked combovers just aren't going to cut it. But Hinn is no ordinary minion of Satan. Observe:

As you can see, Hinn performs his miracles by slapping old people to the ground, and then apparently doing a Jedi force-push against those who come to their aid. Fat people, tiny deaf orphan children, epileptic mulleted types, anyone is fair game for the wrath of Hinn, who then swaggers around those passed out fools like Ali demanding a rematch.

Salting the Mine

How it works: Putting gold or other precious minerals around the superficial part of a dig site in order to convince prospectors that a mine contains a ton of gold, see? You just gotta dig it out!
Why it’s cool: This has become a kind of metaphorical scam, since no one is really wandering around the west, looking for gold to pan anymore. But what a metaphor it is, especially when you read that scammers used to load shotguns with gold dust and fire them into the sides of mines. Just think about any false investment, anything that appears too good to be true from the outside, like an amazing investment account. Just think of Bernard Madoff loading up a shotgun with shells full of consistent 10% returns and firing it at his balance sheets, hoping no one would notice the suspicious pockmarks next to all the precious gold. What a metaphor, right? No, really, it’s genius, I tell you. Plus, Deadwood used this one, so, suck on that.

The Nigerian scam, also known as 419

Most of you have received an email from a member of a Nigerian family with wealth. It is a desperate cry for help in getting a very large sum of money out of the country. A common variation is a woman in Africa who claimed that her husband had died, and that she wanted to leave millions of dollars of his estate to a good church.

In every variation, the scammer is promising obscenely large payments for small unskilled tasks. This scam, like most scams, is too good to be true. Yet people still fall for this money transfer con game.

They will use your emotions and willingness to help against you. They will promise you a large cut of their business or family fortune. All you are asked to do is cover the endless “legal” and other “fees” that must be paid to the people that can release the scammer’s money.

The more you are willing to pay, the more they will try to suck out of your wallet. You will never see any of the promised money, because there isn’t any. And the worst thing is, this scam is not even new; its variant dates back to 1920s when it was known as 'The Spanish Prisoner' con.

Semion Mogilevich

A Ukrainian businessman charged with more than 40 counts of racketeering, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, and other economic crimes carried out in dozens of countries around the world is the newest addition to our Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Semion Mogilevich is wanted for his alleged participation in a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors in the stock of YBM Magnex International, a company he controlled—which had its world headquarters just outside Philadelphia—that was supposed to manufacture magnets but instead bilked investors out of $150 million.

As bad as that scam was, Mogilevich’s continuing international criminal enterprise is believed to be much worse. “The FBI doesn’t have the jurisdiction to charge him with other crimes taking place solely in other countries,” said Special Agent Peter Kowenhoven, “but open-source reporting shows him to be involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.”

Agent Kowenhoven, who has assisted agents working this case since coming to our Philadelphia office in 1997, describes Mogilevich as a ruthless criminal. “Victims don’t mean anything to him,” he said. “And what makes him so dangerous is that he operates without borders. Here’s a guy who managed to defraud investors out of $150 million without ever stepping foot in the Philadelphia area.”

Mogilevich, who is in his early 60s, is about 5-feet-6-inches tall and weighs nearly 300 pounds. He has pockmarks on his face, may have a moustache, and is a heavy smoker. He is living in Moscow, where Russian law prohibits his extradition to the U.S.

Christopher Rocancourt: the french "Rockefeller"

An imposter and con artist who scammed affluent people by masquerading as a French member of the Rockefeller family, Christopher Rocancourt pulled his first big con in Paris, faking the deed to a property he didn't own, then "selling" it for USD $1.4 million. Making his way to the United States, Rocancourt pretended to be a movie producer, ex-boxing champion or venture capitalist. He dropped names like "his mother" Sophia Loren or "his uncles" Oscar de la Renta and Dino De Laurentiis and was associated with various celebrities. He married Playboy model Pia Reyes; they had a son, Zeus. He lived for a time with Mickey Rourke and apparently convinced actor Jean-Claude Van Damme to produce his next movie.

One of his trademarks was to always have a stunningly beautiful woman on his arm. Beside being married to Pia Reyes, according to the press, he lived with playboy model Rhonda Rydell for six months. She did not know Rocancourt was married, and said he had told her he was French nobility, the son of a countess. In March 2002 he was extradited to New York and pleaded to charges of theft, grand larceny, smuggling, bribery, perjury and fraud against 19 victims. He was fined $9 million, was ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution and sentenced to five years in prison. In Switzerland, the police have connected him with a jewel theft and barred him from the country until 2016. He once estimated to Dateline that his various schemes/ventures netted him at least $40 million (USD), but this cannot be confirmed.

John 'Goldfinger' Palmer

John 'Goldfinger' Palmer was convicted of running a multi-million pound Tenerife timeshare scam involving 6,000 British would-be expats in 2001. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, but was released in 2005 after serving half of his sentence.

The Briton's nickname arises from the fact that in 1983 he was acquitted of handling gold stolen from the £26 million Brinks Mat bullion raid at Heathrow Airport.

Bernard Madoff

The Madoff investment scandal broke in December 2008, when former NASDAQ Chairman Bernard Madoff admitted that the wealth management arm of his business was an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

Madoff founded the Wall Street firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC in 1960, and was its Chairman until his arrest.[1][2][3] At his firm he employed his brother Peter as Senior Managing Director and Chief Compliance Officer (Peter has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison), Peter's daughter Shana Madoff as the firm's rules and compliance officer and attorney, and his sons Andrew and Mark (Mark committed suicide by hanging exactly two years after his father's arrest).

Phineas Taylor Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) described himself as the “Prince of Humbug,” an epithet he more than earned during his long and illustrious career. Barnum is best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name (and for the animal crackers named after him), but before his circus career he was form any years an internationally famous museum showman. His early career was marked by a variety of outrageous publicity stunts and hoaxes, which he used to attract attention to his bizarre exhibits. His promotional techniques often tested the boundaries of what the emerging middle class was willing to accept, but he was somehow able to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. People viewed him as a kind of lovable, con artist. The phrase There’s a sucker born every minute will forever be attributed to him, even thug he was not the man who originally said it.

George C. Parker

George Parker (1870–1936) was one of the most audacious con men in American history. He made his living selling New York's public landmarks to unwary immigrants. His favorite object for sale was the Brooklyn Bridge, which he sold several times. He convinced his marks that they could make a fortune by controlling access to the roadway. More than once police had to roust naive buyers from the bridge as they tried to erect toll barriers.

Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil

The most successful American con artist—not only in his own immodest opinion but also according to many police department bunko authorities—has to be Joseph R. “Yellow Kid” Weil.

Born in the mid-1870s, Weil drew his nickname from the popular Yellow Kid character in Richard Outcault’;s newspaper comic strip of the day. The cartoon character was a plucky survivor, and so was his human namesake. After being introduced to the grift (con games) as a shill for a snake-oil salesman named Doc Meriwether, Weil saw how easy it was to bilk the unsophisticated rural population. By the time he had worked his way to Chicago at the turn of the century, he had learned a more important lesson: City folks were just as easy to cheat, plus they had more money.

Robert Hendy-Freegard 'MI5 agent' conman jailed for life

A conman who posed as an MI5 spy during a £1m "odyssey of deceit" was jailed for life today.
Robert Hendy-Freegard, a 34-year old semi-literate former car salesman nicknamed "The Puppetmaster", seduced and ruthlessly exploited his victims during a 10-year period, Blackfriars crown court heard.

The court, in London, was told he convinced some to go on the run from terrorists and swindled others out of huge sums of money.

Using a blend of "devious charm", claims that he was an MI5 agent and James Bond-type tales of shadowy IRA killers, he systematically shredded his victims' self-respect and turned most into virtual slaves.

At least seven of his victims were women, and he got engaged to many of them, the court was told.

Soapy Smith

Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II (November 2, 1860 - July 8, 1898) was a famous con artist, saloon and gambling house proprietor, gangster and crime boss of the nineteenth century old west. His most famous scam, the prize package soap sell racket, presented him with the sobriquet of "Soapy," which remained with him to his death.

Ben Marks

Highly skilled in card games, this man prepared the blueprint for the biggest con jobs in the recent times. A ‘shill’ (a disguised partner) was used by the dealer, who would bet and win therefore attracting big players to the ongoing game. Although it was not highly profitable, Ben Marks perfected it in his times and set the foundation for con jobs in card games.

Bertha Heyman - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bertha Heyman (born c. 1851) was a 19th-century American criminal, also known as "Big Bertha" or the "Confidence Queen." She was described by famed New York City detective Thomas F. Byrnes as "one of the smartest confidence women in America", and was considered by the New York City police to be "the boldest and most expert of the many female adventuresses who infest the country."