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The 9 Most Notorious Con Artists In History

A big pile of $100 bills

In the modern world, most people are very aware of the potential of being scammed by con artists.

It could be clicking on virus-laden links in emails, giving too much away in a strange phone call, or any of the numerous other ways scammers are trying to get their hands on our money.

Scams are something we're all conscious of now.

Sadly, that knowledge doesn't always work.

The concept of a scam is not new, and con artists have existed throughout history.

Before technology made it a lot easier, con men and women had to work a lot harder to fool people.


Some criminal historians even argue the ability to hoodwink someone for your own benefit is something of an art form.

Some fascinating characters have carried out major cons throughout history; here are nine of them.

Frank Abagnale - Pretended to be a pilot

The con man Frank Abagnale
The con man Frank Abagnale

You know you're good if someone decides your incredible life as a con artist is worthy of a Hollywood movie.

That's precisely what happened to Frank Abagnale, one of history's most charismatic con artists.

He was known for his amazing ability to assume multiple personalities.

A man not lacking in self-belief, he successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a college professor.

His most famous scam was when he posed as a Pan Am pilot, which allowed him to take more than 1,000 flights to 26 different countries without paying a cent.

His charm and unflappable confidence allowed him to deceive people easily.

He was eventually caught in France in 1969.

The 2002 movie "Catch Me If You Can" starring Leonardo DiCaprio tells his life story.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for multiple counts of forgery and fraud.

Charles Ponzi - Carried out a massive investment fraud

The fraudster Charles PonziThe fraudster Charles Ponzi
The fraudster Charles Ponzi

From one conman who had a movie made about him to another who had a whole type of fraud named after him.

Charles Ponzi was a fraudster who operated in Boston in 1919.

His scheme promised investors a 50 percent return on their investment in just 90 days.

It was based on buying and selling international postal reply coupons, which Ponzi claimed could be exploited for profit due to exchange rate disparities.

The Italian was incredibly charming and was able to attract thousands of investors.

At its peak, the scam brought in millions of dollars.

Thousands of people invested their life savings based on the promise of extraordinary returns.

However, no profit was generated as money was just being paid to new investors from older ones.

Ponzi was eventually jailed after being charged with numerous counts of mail fraud.

The term "Ponzi Scheme" is now synonymous with investment fraud.

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Victor Lustig - "Sold" the Eifell Tower

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower

Hungarian Victor Lustig was another con man with an incredible ability to persuade people to part with their money.

Operating in France in 1925, he created a fake identity as a government worker.

He invited six scrap metal dealers to a meeting where he explained the world-famous Eiffel Tower had been deemed to be too expensive.

He claimed the government wanted to sell it for scrap.

One dealer, Andre Poisson, was convinced to part with a lot of money to "buy" the tower, which still stands proudly today.

After "selling" the tower, Lustig fled to his home country of Austria.

Poisson was too embarrassed to report he had been scammed, which allowed Lustig to return to France, where he "sold" the tower again.

This time, he was caught and spent some time in prison, although it's not known how long.

He is remembered for his skill in deceiving both people and staying ahead of the authorities.

George C. Parker - "Sold" the Brooklyn Bridge on multiple occasions

George C Parker infront of Brooklyn bridge
George C Parker in front of the Brooklyn bridge

George C Parker was another con artist who cottoned onto the idea of "selling" landmarks and then disappearing with the money.

Parker created fake documents proving he owned several landmarks in New York, like the Brooklyn Bridge.

He even had paperwork saying he owned the Statue of Liberty.

He sold the bridge on several occasions, mainly to people who thought they'd make millions from turning it into a toll bridge.

By the time they realized, Parker had disappeared.

He was finally caught and jailed for life.

His story is a stark tale of exploiting "the American Dream."

Eduardo de Valfierno - Organised the theft of the Mona Lisa (maybe)

The Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa

Eduardo de Valfierno is one of the less well-known con artists on this list, mainly because it's not clear whether he existed or not.

However, he is said to be the brains behind one of the most audacious art crimes of all time - the theft of the Mona Lisa from The Louvre in 1911.

His plan was to both steal it and then create multiple forgeries.

Valfierno allegedly hired an Italian handyman, Vincenzo Peruggia, to steal the painting and then used a French forger to create six copies of the world-famous image.

He then sold the forgeries to American collectors, claiming each was the original.

For his fraud to work, Valfierno needed the original to disappear so he could claim the fakes were Leonardo da Vinci's original masterpiece.

However, Peruggia was caught when he tried to sell the original.

It was returned to the Louvre in 1913.

Peruggia denied he knew Valfierno other than a chance meeting at the Louvre.

What's interesting about this case is that no one is sure whether it happened.

The only source for the story, and, in fact, the existence of Valfierno and the forger Yves Chaudron, is a newspaper article from the Saturday Evening Post by journalist Karl Decker.

Decker was well-known for his somewhat exaggerated articles and also got the size and weight of the Mona Lisa wrong, as well as what type of wood it was painted on.

As well as that, none of the fakes have ever been found, prompting people to think Decker made the whole thing up, including Valfierno.

However, Peruggia was accurate and did steal the painting.

The plot around it and the existence of the apparently great conman Valfierno remains dubious.

Gregor MacGregor - Invented a country and sold parts of it

The Scottish conman Gregor MacGregor
The Scottish conman Gregor MacGregor

The Scottish con artist Gregor MacGregor showed the imagination his parents clearly lacked when creating his scam.

He decided to go big with his deception, creating an entire country he then sold chunks of.

He called it Poyais.

MacGregor invented the paradise in Central America.

He made maps, a constitution, and even a flag.

MacGregor said it was a land of untold riches and fertile land, which had a mild climate, ideal for the people of Scotland.

He sold land to people in London and Scotland, appointed colonial officials, and even issued bonds from the Poyaisian government.

In 1822, a group of settlers sailed to the "country" to find a large area of completely uninhabitable jungle.

Despite this, MacGregor was able to continue to sell parts of Poyais in France and Europe.

His scam exploited investors' greed and took advantage of how hard it would have been to verify the country's existence at the time.

Anna Sorokin (Delvey) - "I'd Be lying to you and everyone else and to myself if I said I was sorry for anything"

A more modern scam is that of Anna Delvey, a con artist who posed as a wealthy German heiress to enter the New York socialite scene between 2013 and 2017.

She then defrauded banks, hotels, and wealthy friends to fund her lifestyle.

Delvey claimed she had a trust fund worth millions, which allowed her to stay in luxury hotels for free and promised her friends extravagant all-expenses-paid trips.

She also arranged loans from banks for a fake art club.

It all unraveled when the banks started to ask her to pay back the money.

In 2017, she was charged with grand larceny and theft of services.

Her trial featured her appearing in court clad in hugely expensive designer clothing.

She even refused to appear in "prison clothing," saying her outfit for the day had not been pressed.

She remained unrepentant, saying to the court: "I'd be lying to you and everyone else and to myself if I said I was sorry for anything."

Bernard Madoff - The Biggest Ponzi scheme in history

Bernie Madoff police mugshot
Bernie Madoff carried out a massive fraud in America

Charles Ponzi clearly inspired banker Bernard Madoff as he carried out the biggest fraud in American history.

It is thought Madoff stole a staggering $65 billion in his scheme, which spanned decades.

It was eventually uncovered in 2008.

He was jailed for a staggering 150 years before his death at the age of 82 in 2021.

Read the full story here.

Cassie Chadwick - Pretended to be the daughter of one of the wealthiest people who ever lived

Con artist Cassie Chadwick
Con artist Cassie Chadwick

Cassie Chadwick, born Elizabeth Bigley in 1857, was a Canadian con artist who perpetrated a massive fraud in the United States by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of the hugely wealthy Andrew Carnegie.

Her scheme involved millions of dollars in forged securities.

She began her criminal career with small-scale frauds before embarking on her most ambitious scam.

In the early 1900s, she convinced a Cleveland banker she was Carnegie's daughter and heir to part of his massive fortune.

She showed fake promissory notes as proof and secured loans from several banks.

The scale of her deception was vast, with estimates of her total borrowings ranging from $10 million to $20 million in today's money.

Her lavish lifestyle and the seeming credibility of her story bought her time, but eventually, the banks began demanding repayment.

Chadwick's fraud was exposed in 1904, and she was convicted of conspiracy to defraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where she died in 1907.

Her story is a testament to the power of a well-crafted false identity and the greed and gullibility of her victims.

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