From swindling millions of pounds from unsuspecting victims, to impersonating aristocracy to gain fame and fortune, fraudsters have been conning their way through the world for centuries.
With today marking the start of International Fraud Awareness Week, we look back at some of the most outrageous crimes committed by fraudsters throughout history.
The man who couldn’t be caught
The inspiration behind the hit film Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale is one of the most famous imposters ever, claiming no fewer than eight identities and escaping from police custody twice. Frank started his criminal career as a cheque forger at 15 years old, swindling banks of thousands of dollars before posing as an airline pilot, flying an estimated 1,000,000 miles on over 250 flights for two years without being caught. After stints as a lawyer and a doctor, the jig was up for Frank and he was arrested in France in 1969 and sentenced for 12 years in prison for multiple counts of fraud. The story doesn’t end there though – after serving just five years of his sentence, Frank was hired as a security consultant, and now has his own company advising banks on fraud issues.
The man who sold the Eiffel Tower – twice
In the 1920s Victor Lustig, a charming conman who was fluent in several languages, convinced a group of six scrap metal dealers that the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower was becoming so expensive that it could no longer be maintained by the government, and would have to be sold for scrap. Lustig told the men that the deal had to be agreed in secret due to the potential for public outcry over the plans, and managed to convince one man, Andre Poisson, to shell out thousands to bid for the deal before fleeing on the first train to Vienna. Most shockingly of all, Poisson was so embarrassed by the con that he didn’t report it to the police, and Lustig returned to Paris a month later and tried to sell the tower again. Unfortunately for Lustig, he was arrested before being able to close the deal.
The princess from a far away kingdom
In 1817, a disorientated young woman in exotic clothing was found wandering the streets of Gloucestershire, speaking an indecipherable language. A Portugese sailor claimed to be able to translate her story, and it transpired that she was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean, who had escaped capture by pirates by jumping into the Bristol Channel and swimming ashore. Amazingly she was believed and taken in by the wealthy Worrall family who lavished her with attention and gifts and elevated her to the status of a local celebrity. Sadly for Princess Caraboo, a boarding house keeper saw her picture in the local paper and recognised her as Mary Willcocks, a local cobblers daughter.
The Mona Lisa mastermind
Eduardo de Valfierno, an Argentine conman, made the history books when he allegedly masterminded the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. Valfierno paid Vincenzo Peruggia to steal the painting, and the museum worker walked out of the museum with the painting stashed underneath his coat, making headlines across the world. However, Valfierno’s real con was to forge six copies of the painting and sell them on to unsuspecting buyers, who believed the painting had been stolen just for them. By the time they realised the truth, Valfierno was long gone, and Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested trying to sell the original Mona Lisa in Florence two years later.
The original Ponzi schemer
While Charles Ponzi did not invent the Ponzi scheme, his swindle of thousands of investors was so extensive and lucrative at the time that the well-known scam now bears his name. In 1919, the Italian businessman and con artist promised investors they could make a hefty profit by purchasing discounted reply coupons from other countries and then redeeming them in the US for face value. His promise to clients of a 100% profit within 90 days was so appealing that Charles had no shortage of new investors, which allowed him to pocket millions of dollars for himself, while still managing to pay off his existing investors. However, in August 1920 the scheme came crashing down, bringing down six banks, losing investors an estimated $20 million dollars and landing Charles with a hefty prison sentence.
The world’s worst golfer
Maurice Flitcroft, a crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness, had only practised putting in his living room when he became world renowned for posing as a professional golfer to gain a place in the 1976 Open Championship. Flitcroft, who prepared by studying an instruction manual borrowed from the local library, was discovered when he managed to achieve the worst score ever recorded in the tournament's history – a 49-over-par 121. Following his deception, which angered many in the golfing establishment, the rules were changed to prevent him ever entering the Championship again. However, this didn’t deter Flitcroft, and he entered the Open again under the psuedonynm Gerald Hoppy, managing to score 63 for nine holes before being discovered.
The Cottingley fairies
In 1917, two young girls managed to convince the world they had discovered fairies at the bottom of their garden in Cottingley, near Bradford. Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright borrowed a camera from Elsie’s father, telling him they wanted to take photos of the fairies they had been playing with at the bottom of the garden. Despite their insistence that they were real, the developed photos were immediately dismissed by Elsie’s father as fakes. However, two years later the photos were brought to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes and an avid spiritualist, who seized upon them as proof of the supernatural. The story captured the public’s imagination and, despite the two cousins admitting in 1983 that the photos had been faked, both went to their graves insisting they really had seen the fairies.
One of the world’s most serial imposters, Frederic Bourdin began his impersonations as a child and is said to have assumed over 500 identities in his lifetime. His most famous impersonation was of Nicholas Barclay, a French teenager who went missing in 1994 from Austin, Texas. In 1997, despite having a French accent and brown eyes, Bourdin flew to America to claim he was the Barclay’s long lost, blue-eyed son, and lived with the family for five months before being discovered. Despite being imprisoned for six years for the scam, Bourdin went on to impersonate two further missing teenagers, before giving up his fraudulent lifestyle and settling down in France with his wife and four children.
While the outrageous frauds committed by the con artists above sound like they could have been plucked straight from a Hollywood movie, fraud in the mortgage industry is a very real problem. According to CIFAS, there were just over 1000 cases of residential mortgage fraud in Q3 of 2015 alone. At Leeds Building Society, we would like to help you spot the warning signs of mortgage fraud to ensure you are protected as a broker with our Finanical Crime Prevention presentation.