The truth is, you have to be very careful with who you trust. Trust me. Scam artists, con men, impostors and frauds come in all shapes and sizes, so you have to have your guard up when dealing with strangers (or even friends for that matter). You can go far back in history and learn about frauds like Gregor MacGregor, Princess Caraboo, and Charles Ponzi (for whom they named the Ponzi scheme), and find examples of people who became famous and rich because people believed their lies. Here's a list of 12 of the biggest frauds of our time, who all tried to move up in the world at other people's expense, but had it all blow up in their face.
No. 12 - Sarah J. Phillips
The most recent scam artist on our list, Phillips had her cover blown in a fascinating expose last week on Deadspin.
Who she claimed to be: A 22-year-old girl who bet on sports, knew more about sports than you, became an ESPN columnist, and was going to take over the sports media world.
Who she really was: From what we know for sure, she is a 22-year-old girl from Oregon who more than likely used her boyfriend Nilesh Prasad's gambling knowledge to build a following on popular sports betting site Covers.com. She got noticed by ESPN and was given a column, and used that prominent position to start scamming people with popular Twitter and Facebook accounts. She was able to lure away passwords and admin access to these accounts by promising the owners they would be part of her soon-to-be-huge sports-media site. She promised money to some, swindled others out of cash for nonexistent ad buys, and threatened legal action to those who fired back. She also claimed to know prominent ESPN people who were helping her with her projects, but those "people" were just her partner in scamming, Prasad.
Repercussions: She has been fired by ESPN, shamed by the online community, and most likely will never work in sports media ever again.
No. 11 - Parents of Balloon Boy
Who they claimed to be: Richard and Mayumi Heene, the concerned parents of a 6-year-old boy named Falcon, who floated off into the atmosphere in a large helium-filled balloon in October 2009, and was feared to be dead when the balloon finally landed and he wasn't inside.
Who they really were: Terrible parents and terrible people, who staged the event in order to gain publicity for a television show Richard was working on. Falcon was never in the balloon, but was told by his parents to hide in the attic while the media whipped the world into a frenzy over the fate of the "balloon boy."
Repercussions: 90 days in jail for Richard, 20 days in jail for Mayumi, $36,000 in fines, no TV show.
No. 10 - Milli Vanilli
Who they claimed to be: Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, lead vocalists of the popular pop group who won a Grammy in 1990 for Best New Artist.
Who they really were: Not the actual vocalists on Milli Vanilli's records.
Repercussions: They lost their Grammy, were dropped from their record label, faced several lawsuits, and attempted a comeback that didn't pan out. Personal problems mounted for Pilatus, who died in 1998 of an accidental overdose.
No. 9 - James Frey
Who he claimed to be: A former violent criminal who battled drug and alcohol addiction and used his experiences to write "A Million Little Pieces," a bestseller presented as an autobiography.
Who he really was: An exaggerator, embellisher, and flat-out liar. On January 8, 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article titled "A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey's Fiction Addiction" alleging that Frey fabricated large parts of his memoirs, lied about his criminal record, and greatly embellished incidents related to his addiction. His publishers found this to be true upon questioning Frey, and the scandal was full-blown.
Repercussions: He got torn a new one in a live confrontation with Oprah on her show, was dropped my his manager, lost a book deal and thousands of dollars in sales and lawsuits. But he continues to be a fairly successful author today, albeit not in non-fiction.
No. 8 - Christophe Rocancourt
Who he claimed to be: A movie producer, an ex-boxing champion, a venture capitalist, kin of various Hollywood celebrities, and a member of the Rockefeller family.
Who he really was: A French-born imposter, who scammed affluent people by using their own greed against them (so he told "Dateline NBC" in 2006). He got rich people to invest in his schemes by playing the part of a rich person himself. He managed to befriend many celebrities, marry a Playboy model, and convinced Jean-Claude Van Damme to produce his next movie.
Repercussions: Sentenced to five years in prison in March 2002 for theft, grand larceny, bribery, perjury and fraud against 19 victims, and fined approximately $10 million. He is also connected to a jewel theft in Switzerland and is banned from the country.
No. 7 - Frederic Bourdin
Who he claimed to be: Several different missing teenage boys, but most notably in 1997, Nicholas Barclay, a lost son of a family in San Antonio, Texas.
Who he really was: A guy raised in Paris by his grandparents, who ended up being put in a children's home. Once he got out of there, he began his impostures, and is believed to have assumed around 40 false identities in his life. The press has nicknamed him "The Chameleon."
Repercussions: He was able to convince that San Antonio family that he was their missing son, and they brought him to America to live with them for three months. However, a private investigator was soon able to uncover the truth, and a DNA test confirmed it. Bourdin was imprisoned for six years. When he got out, he attempted several more ruses, only to be jailed again and deported from Spain. In 2008 he got married, and it seems that his imposturing is over. There was a movie made based on the Nicholas Barclay case in 2010, titled "The Chameleon."
No. 6 - David Hampton
Who he claimed to be: David Poitier, the neglected son of legendary actor, Sidney Poitier.
Who he really was: A teenager from Buffalo who moved to New York City, and desired the attention and offerings that came with being a celebrity (or a celebrity's "son").
Repercussions: After running the con for a couple years, and receiving either money or lodging from people like Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise, and Calvin Klein, he was arrested in 1983 and convicted of his frauds. He was ordered to pay $4,500 back to his various victims, was banned from NYC, and received a 21-month prison term later on for a burglary conviction.
No. 5 - Frank Abagnale
Who he claimed to be: A Pan Am airline pilot, a teaching assistant, a doctor, and a lawyer.
Who he really was: A master of check forgery, and probably the most well-known impostor of all time. His life story provided the inspiration for the 2002 movie, "Catch Me If You Can."
Repercussions: In 1969 he was captured in France and served a harsh six-month prison sentence. He was then sent to Sweden, and served another six months there. Finally, he was deported to the United States and served five years in the federal pen (after two attempts to escape, of course). After his release, he managed to clean up his act and use his unique skills to help banks uncover fraud, and eventually founded Abagnale & Associates. His firm advises businesses on fraud, and today he is a legitimate millionaire.
No. 4 - James Hogue
Who he claimed to be: Alexi Indris-Santana, a self-taught orphan from Utah. He was able to enroll at Princeton University in 1988 under this false identity, become a member of the track team, and was even admitted into the Ivy Club.
Who he really was: An ex con man from Kansas City, Kansas. He was exposed at a track meet when a Yale student recognized him from Palo Alto High School, where he was caught posing as a high-school student at the age of 26 a couple years earlier.
Repercussions: He was arrested in 1991 for defrauding the university and sentenced to three years in jail. He was in and out of jail for violating parole and theft until 1997. He managed to stay out of trouble until 2005, when he was arrested for stealing nearly 7,000 items from various homes in Colorado. He pled guilty to theft and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.
No. 3 - Christian Gerhartsreiter
Who he claimed to be: Clark Rockefeller, a member of the famous Rockefeller family.
Who he really was: A German man who moved to the United States as a teenager and assumed many aliases. In the 1980s he lived in California under the name Christopher Chichester. Later, he headed east and assumed the role of Clark Rockefeller, married Sandra Boss, and lived a prosperous lifestyle solely on Boss's high income. They had houses in Boston and New Hampshire, and had a daughter together. However, upon learning that her husband was a compulsive liar and emotionally abusive, she filed for divorce.
Repercussions: After the divorce, Gerhartsreiter abducted his daughter in July 2008, and was sentenced to five years in prison. And get this: he is also currently on trial for the murder of a California man who he lived with in 1985 (when he was known as Chris Chichester).
No. 2 - Jeffrey Skilling (pictured) and Kenneth Lay
Who they claimed to be: President and CEO of Enron, a company that was doing just fine and deserved the $74 billion that investors gave them.
Who they really were: Liars and crooks, who greatly exaggerated the health of their company and led it to bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history when Enron filed in December 2001. Investors lost billions, and 20,000 employees lost their jobs and many of them their life savings.
Repercussions: Both were found guilty of conspiracy, making false statements, and securities fraud. Skilling, also convicted of insider trading, was fined $45 million and is currently serving a 24-year prison term. Lay got lucky; he died of a heart attack while he was awaiting his sentence.
Next: 30 Mistakes Everyone Makes Before 30
No. 1 - Bernie Madoff
Who he claimed to be: An honest businessman, stockbroker, investment adviser and financier.
Who he really was: The operator of a Ponzi scheme that is believed to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. The total amount Madoff scammed investors and non-profit organizations for: $18 billion.
Repercussions: In March 2009, Madoff pled guilty to 11 federal felonies, and received the maximum sentence of 150 years in federal prison.