Let’s face it: honest work is for suckers. While you’re slaving away at a computer/deep fryer/car-assembling-robot/stripper pole or whatever, someone much smarter and far less moral than you is raiding your retirement fund, often in a way that ensures they’ll never be caught (or at least convicted).
What follows is a list of scams and schemers who’ve managed to make mad bank while spending a minimum of time behind bars.
JOSEPH “YELLOW KID” WEIL
A con man famous even in an era dominated by con men, Joseph Weil dropped out of school at the age of seventeen to become a collector for a local Chicago loan shark.
When Joseph noticed his fellow collectors were skimming profits, he organized his first protection racket—Weil wouldn’t rat on them if he got a cut of their earnings. Weil soon rose to a sort of secret fame in the grifting underworld under the coaching of Frank Hogan, where he earned the “Yellow Kid” nickname after the popular Hogan’s Alley and the Yellow Kid comic strip, but the Kid soon surpassed all of his tutors by making use of what his biographer called his “uncanny knowledge of human nature.”
Weil is estimated to have stolen more than eight million dollars during his criminal career, but only served two years in prison and died a free man at the age of 100.
BERNARD CORNFELD AND INVESTORS OVERSEAS SERVICES
Bernard Cornfeld got his start early, convincing a friend to use his insurance benefits to buy an age-and-weight guessing stand at Coney Island. After a brief stint as a social worker, Cornfeld founded Investors Overseas Services. it was a a complicated mutual fund operation that took advantage of the differences between different countries’ financial regulations to dodge taxes and fees of all kinds.
Just to name one example, IOS’ headquarters were officially in Geneva, Switzerland, but the actual offices were located just over the border in France, circumventing the need to obtain Swiss work permits for the staff. By all accounts “Bernie” was an incredible salesman, and his natural talent combined with IOS’ slippery business practices generated enormous cash dividends that Cornfeld funneled into a legendary party lifestyle.
But he and his company were always just a hairs breadth from real legal trouble. Cornfeld was eventually muscled out of his own company for embezzlement (spending only 11 months in Swiss jail for his crimes) and did a brief stint in American prison for an unrelated telephone scam, but the brilliant con artist died wealthy, free and surrounded by supermodels in California.
JEFF “SOAPY” SMITH, COLORADO CON KING
Jefferson Randolph Smith II was a master of the “short con,” fast-acting low-profit scams that never aspired to rip off more than what a typical mark carried in his wallet.
Smith earned the “Soapy” sobriquet from his most successful scam, known as “The Prize Soap Racket." Smith would hawk bars of completely ordinary soap as miracle cures and sweetened the deal by wrapping up a few bars with twenty, fifty, and hundred-dollar bills.
A few of the “prize bars” would go to Smith’s shills, but the others would pass through sleight-of-hand into his briefcase. The scheme was so successful that Soapy Smith ended up running a significant portion of Denver’s gambling and vice markets.
After a few years, Colorado governors started to close in on Soapy’s rackets, but Smith simply relocated to Skagway, Alaska, focus of a new gold rush and a town even more lawless than Denver at its peak.
Smith and his gang soon assumed so much power over the town that his saloon became known as “the real city hall,” and no legal or governmental power could hope to challenge his power.
Fortunately for the clean-living citizens of Skagway, Soapy pushed his luck when he challenged vigilante Frank Reid, and in what became known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf the sudsy scofflaw took a bullet to the heart.
THE SUCKERS OF SUPERVALU
The key to every really successful scam is choosing a good victim. The unknown and still un-caught con artists who ripped off Minnesota-based supermarket chain Supervalu to the tune of ten million dollars managed to find the mark every con man dreams of. All they needed to do was send two emails posing as representatives of Frito-Lay and American Greetings, claiming the companies had changed bank accounts and that further payments should be sent to a new address in Florida.
Incredibly, no one at Supervalu bothered to double-check this information, and it was only after the real company reps called to ask where their money was that the supermarket realized its mistake.
While the FBI was able to freeze most of the cash, the perps got away clean and Supervalu was left to fight over the remaining money between Frito-Lay and American Greetings.
This sort of egregious screw-up could only have happened in the early days of business e-mail and electronic invoices, right? Wrong—the farcical affair occurred just six years ago.
THE LUCRATIVE GOSPEL OF BENNY HINN
There have been a lot of bogus preachers that have preyed on the trust of innocent parishioners, but few have been as successful as Benny Hinn. Born Toufik Benedictus Hinn in Arabic Palestine, Benny’s family emigrated to Toronto where his father claimed to be the former mayor of the Israeli city of Jaffa, establishing a solid foundation of lies that Hinn would build a commercial evangelical empire on.
Benny Hinn’s specialty was faith healing, particularly the well-publicized faith healing of disabled followers who would stagger onto his stage begging for relief from their wounds, receive a blast of holy gibberish, and walk away whole and hearty, casting off their casts and braces.
Curiously, many pilgrims suffering from muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and other visible disabilities often find themselves being ignored or even turned away by Hinn’s screeners.
Such activity (along with stunts like his 2006 request for donations towards a $36 million Gulfstream jet) has brought Hinn’s ministry to the attention of both the United States government and the evangelical organization Ministry Watch.
But unlike some other crooked televangelists, Benny has kept his nose clean and has so far managed to avoid having sex with men for crystal meth… or at least he’s been pretty discreet about it.
THE MONA LISA CAPER OF 1911
Argentine con man Eduardo “Marquis” de Valfierno had a master forger in his employ, six near-perfect copies of the Mona Lisa, and a tricky problem: no matter how good his forgeries were, nobody was going to buy one when the real Mona Lisa was quite obviously still on display in the Louvre.
To solve this problem, de Valfierno reached out to his contacts in the Parisian criminal underworld in search of a thief capable of snatching one of the world’s greatest art treasures from one of the world’s greatest museums.
When painter Louis Beroud arrived on the morning of August 22, 1911 to sketch the portrait he found only a blank space on the wall. In the ensuing investigation everyone from the Parisian mafia to Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning.
In fact, the portrait had been stolen by Louvre employee and Italian patriot Vincenzo Peruggia, who intended to return the painting to its native Florence—de Valfierno paid the man a pittance to simply walk out of the museum with the portrait under his jacket and never contacted him again.
With the painting stolen, the Marquis was able to sell his six forgeries to six different suckers, confident that none of the marks would ever find out about the others.
As for the original, it was believed lost forever until Peruggia attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, for which he received a slap-on-the-wrist sentence of six months in jail while the famous painting toured Italy.
STEPHEN BURROUGHS, “THE WORST BOY IN TOWN”
Son of a stern Congregationalist minister, Stephen Burroughs was one of America’s first folk heroes and/or supervillains, as well as a pretty solid example of how a religious upbringing is no guarantee of good behavior.
After an infamously misspent youth involving brief stints in the Army, in college, and a tour on a privateer (where he pretended to be a doctor) Burroughs finally settled down in Massachusetts to a career of pretending to be a minister and seducing foxy schoolgirls.
While this would be enough for most people, Burroughs decided to become one of America’s first and most infamous counterfeiters, earning him several prison stays marked by the occasional spectacular escape attempt before he finally ran to Canada to establish a far more successful counterfeit ring.
The charismatic crook was massively popular in his lifetime, and his memoirs became the young country’s first best-seller. Burroughs supposedly reformed and lived out the rest of his life as a tutor for schoolchildren (although I’d think twice before having him look after the education of your foxy schoolgirl) but his legacy was such that for years, criminals would give the name Stephen Burroughs to the arresting officer.
GREGOR MACGREGOR, PRINCE OF POYAIS
So full of vice they named him twice, Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish soldier, mercenary, and adventurer who got his start in the Napoleonic Wars before selling his commission and traveling to South America in search of more lucrative combat.
A skilled warrior, MacGregor sold his talents to various rebel militaries before hitting his high point as the warlord of the “Republic of the Floridas,” a short-lived microstate that he ran out of Amelia Island (just east of modern-day Jacksonville) until the money dried up and the sneaky Scotsman departed the New World only to embark on a new scheme.
MacGregor convinced London high society that he was the cacique (meaning prince or high authority) of the Principality, Territory, or Republic of Poyais, depending on who he was talking to at the time.
Eventually, he convinced some 240 colonists to invest in the settlement of a country that he described as fertile, civilized, and friendly to European settlers. The two boat-loads of would-be colonists arrived in the Bay of Honduras to find nothing more than a few huts constructed by American hermits and thousands of acres of hostile untamed jungle.
A British ship from the real Honduras colony happened across MacGregor’s diseased, starving settlers and offered them passage back to Britain, where despite their horrific ordeal the prospective Poyais colonists refused to place any blame on the charismatic Gregor MacGregor.
That unshakeable loyalty to an obvious con man came in handy a year later when French authorities indicted MacGregor on fraud charges, charges he beat handily by claiming that basically everyone in his organization was guilty except himself.
After subsequent Poyais schemes proved unsuccessful, MacGregor moved to Venezuela where he received a hero’s welcome and a general’s pension for his work in ensuring that nation’s independence.
THE NEFARIOUS MR. NATWARLAL
Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava AKA “Natwarlal” is often compared to famed con artist George C. Parker, the man who sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years. The main difference between Natwarlal and Parker (and the reason Parker doesn’t appear on this list) is that while Parker died serving life at Sing Sing Prison, Natwarlal was last seen at the age of 84 escaping police custody in a wheelchair.
Born in the impoverished village of Bangra, Natwarlal was originally a lawyer before deciding upon a more lucrative and honest career selling the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Indian Parliament House, and the personal residence of Indian president Dr. Rajendra Prasad.
It was claimed that Natwarlal gave much of his ill-gotten gains to India’s poor, and he soon became a folk hero and the subject of the much-loved masala movie “Mr. Natwarlal.”
Arrested a number of times, Natwarlal was always able to give the slip to his captors, and while his lawyer claims that he died in 2009 at the age of 95, no evidence has yet been produced that proves Natwarlal isn’t simply planning the con to end all cons.
Next: The Most Absurd Conspiracies Ever
THE ALBANIAN PYRAMID CRISIS
There are many conflicting theories on how to best run a country’s economy, but almost all of them would agree that whatever philosophy you subscribe to you probably shouldn’t allow two-thirds of your citizens to invest half your country’s GDP in Mafia-run Ponzi schemes.
Unfortunately for the recently capitalist country of Albania, nobody had bothered to tell the citizens how to recognize a pyramid scheme and nobody had bothered to tell the government that they shouldn’t publicly endorse said pyramid schemes.
After duping the populace for a good five years, all the scam operations collapsed at more or less the same time, taking everybody’s money with them.
Suspecting government collusion with the gangster-run investment schemes, Albanian citizens in the southern port of Vlore attacked the headquarters of the local security forces. This lead to the abrupt collapse of the central government and a ten-day revolt/civil war where street gangs seized control of entire cities, mobs of rioting citizens broke into arms depots, and it was estimated that every Albanian man above the age of ten was carrying an assault rifle and a few hundred rounds of ammunition.
After some 3800 deaths and the complete destruction of the national economy, the “Rescue Committee” of the opposition Socialist Party managed to stage national elections, somehow convincing an entire nation of people who had just seen their life savings disappear to stop shooting each other and blowing up banks.
The chairmen of the various scam operations were convicted in absentia, but nobody in the still-ravaged country realistically expects them to show their faces in public.