7 of the Most Notorious Con Men in American History
Scam artists, con men, gangsters, racketeers—- there are a lot of people out there trying to get your money. Of course, a lot of these people aren’t out there targeting the average American, as they tend to set their sights on the rich and famous, or enormously wealthy, in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of their game.
And they’ve been doing it for centuries.
Throughout history, con men have wreaked havoc on many a family. Men like Gregor MacGregor and Victor Lustig come to mind, for pulling off rather astounding schemes that included, in Lustig’s case, selling the Eiffel Tower (twice!). MacGregor, a Scot born in the late 1700s, put together an international scam that included inventing an entirely false country in what is now modern day Honduras, and convincing “investors” to hand over capital to exploit the natural resources found in “Poyais,” the fake nation in which he just happened to be the prince of.
That earned him the title of “the king of con-men” from The Economist.
But narrowing our focus, the past century or so has brought on a new breed of con man that have perfected their games in a deliciously American way. New schemes have been devised, and even as people have grown increasingly aware of said scams, they’re continuously falling for it. The only way to attempt to put an end to that cycle is to learn the game, and walk away before you yourself become ensnared. The only way to learn is to take note from the world’s finest, and that’s where we come in.
On the following pages are seven of the most notorious con men and scam artists in American history. Some names you’ll know, others will be new, but they all have one thing in common — they’re swindlers of the highest order. Read on to see who they are, and what they did to earn a spot on our list.
1. Lou Pearlman
If you were swept up in Boy Band mania during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lou Pearlman is the man you can thank. Pearlman, pictured above with one-time teen heartthrob Aaron Carter, was the driving force behind the Backstreet Boys, and claims that thanks to his directions, each member earned as much as $50 million. Oh, and he also brought N’Sync to prominence. Pearlman got his piece of the action, though it evidently wasn’t enough. He then went on to perpetrate a $300 million Ponzi scheme.
As a side gig to his music business, Pearlman also ran an investment scheme that that essentially saw him taking investors’ money, promising to invest it at a high return, then simply spending it on himself. Pearlman was handed a 25-year prison sentence, but was given the opportunity to take one month off of that sentence for every $1 million he was able to recover for his victims.
2. Charles Ponzi
Speaking of Ponzi schemes, we have to include the man who devised the original: Charles Ponzi. Though born in Italy, and eventually dying in Brazil, Ponzi was the man who invented the most famous scheme you can think of. Back in the early 1900s, Ponzi came up with a way to turn a profit by manipulating international reply coupon systems, which at the time had him buying postage stamps in one country, and selling them for profit in another.
This worked, but then he found investors to swindle. Ponzi took their money, promised high returns, then made it magically disappear — in the form of mansions and other nice things for himself. Eventually, he was arrested after defrauding investors of roughly $20 million ($220 million adjusted), and destroying six banks.
3. Frank Abagnale
If you’re familiar with the movie Catch Me If You Can, then you know the story of Frank Abagnale. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, Abagnale’s tale is long-winded, and starts at a young age. When he was 16, he posed as an airline pilot to get free flights, and also pretended to be a doctor and lawyer. He forged checks, defrauded banks, and a handful of other things before eventually pulling a 180 and becoming an FBI consultant.
Today, Abagnale runs his own consulting company that specializes in financial fraud — just like he did for many years.
4. Barry Minkow
Barry Minkow is another con man who was dazzled by the lure of the Ponzi scheme. While still in high school, Minkow started a carpet cleaning business that was immensely successful, mostly because it acted as a front for the scheme he was perpetuating. How else would a 15-year old’s carpet cleaning company become valued at $280 million? He went to jail, was released, and then became a pastor.
But that didn’t steer him away from trouble. In 2011, he was investigated by the SEC and sent back to prison for insider trading. And that’s not all — Minkow also has since been punished further for embezzling money from patrons of the church at which he previously served.
5. George C. Parker
George Parker may not be a name familiar to most modern Americans, but the scam he pulled off is definitely one for the ages. Parker, an early 20th-century con man, was born in 1870 and would famously go on to sell one of New York City’s most famous landmarks, the Brooklyn Bridge. Not once, but twice. And it he didn’t stop there — Parker also sold Madison Square Garden and the Statue of Liberty.
Of course, none of those sales were legitimate, as Parker didn’t own any of those structures. Oh, and as a kicker, Parker also impersonated President Ulysses S. Grant’s grandson, while trying to sell Grant’s tomb. Yes, it was awful, but you kind of have to admire the testicular fortitude Parker brought to his game.
6. Bernard Madoff
Madoff’s name was, and continues to be, in the news a few years after his Ponzi scheme blew up in his face. Madoff famously swindled many of America’s rich and famous, convincing them to put money in his investment fund. Over the years, Madoff took in a reported $65 billion, before finally confessing to the whole thing in 2009. That earned him a 150-year prison sentence, and sadly enough, forced one family member to commit suicide in shame.
Though there were billions lost, some of Madoff’s victims played it off in pretty cool fashion. Actor Kevin Bacon’s reaction? To simply have sex with his wife Kyra Sedgwick — because it was free.
7. Don Lapre
Don Lapre, a famous TV pitch man (as seen in the video above), didn’t do as much damage as some of the other names on our list, but was brought down in rather public fashion. Lapre was a multi-level marketing (read that as ‘pyramid scheme’) and infomercial guru, and sold ‘packages’ that would teach people to make money, or any other number of things, that simply didn’t work. All of that eventually came to a head in 2011, when Lapre was convicted on 41 charges of fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering.
There was no happy ending for Lapre, who was found dead in his jail cell before his trial even began, apparently after committing suicide. For the $52 million in damages he caused, Lapre faced up to 25 years in jail.
Follow Sam on Twitter @SliceOfGinger