Fake It Till You Make It (To Jail): 8 Biggest Frauds In American History
America was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of the working man – and a bunch of brazen frauds who chased the dream by lying through their teeth. In the land of opportunity, where fresh starts are handed out more freely than dollar bills at a strip club, it’s easy to get caught up in visions of grandeur.
We all break the rules from time to time to get what we want, but these eight individuals made bucking the system a lifestyle. Fascinating, awe-inspiring, hilarious, and sinister, these American legends took con-artistry to new heights before landing themselves in the “big house.” So the next time someone advises you to “fake it till you make it,” just remember not to fake it too far.
Cover Photo: Allison Leach (Getty Images)
Reality bites: 10 Things Graduates Will Immediately Miss About College
One of America's recent arrivals to white-collar crime, Elizabeth Holmes' company Theranos defrauded Silicon Valley investors, famed politicians, and the American public alike. Claiming to have the technology to run comprehensive blood tests with just a single drop of blood (without the use of needles) Holmes' bold-faced lies catapulted her to the top of the tech world. At one point she was even called "the next Steve Jobs."
But fudging scientific research can only buy you so much time. Today Holmes faces up to 20 years in rich-people prison.
George C. Parker
When George C. Parker successfully sold the Brooklyn Bridge to a gullible tourist, he knew he had stumbled upon something special. He began selling every major landmark in town. From Madison Square Garden to the Statue of Liberty, no object was too grand for Parker to hawk. Eventually the con caught up with him and Parker was shipped up the river to Sing Sing, where he reportedly tried selling his prison cell to one of the guards for $150.
Frank Abagnale Jr.
You may remember him from Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal in the 2008 film Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale was a precocious young trickster, conning his way to the captain's chair of PanAm's illustrious fleet, before going on to become a fake doctor, amateur lawyer, and most notoriously, a check forger. His schemes earned him millions of dollars, but when the Feds eventually caught up with him, Abagnale had no choice but to join the FBI as forgery specialist and all-around grift expert. We're secretly hoping he's got one last trick up his sleeve before he retires.
Truly an originator in the field, Charles Ponzi made such an impression on the world of double-dealing that history named the scheme after him. Convincing investors to buy cheap stamps in bulk, Ponzi would sell the assets in arbitrage (a different market with a higher value on the assets). Investors were tickled at the "profits" he was turning, until they discovered his whole operation was a total scam. Who knew stamps could be so scandalous?
What is it with DiCaprio's obsession with con artists? (His portrayal of Holmes is rumored to hit Hulu by 2021.) The talented Mr. Holmes pretended to be a doctor and real-estate developer during the Chicago World's Fair in the early 1890s. But all this was just a clever front for his real purposes: to build a de facto murder house where he could lure visitors to the Fair into his own personal fun house. His false front succeeded smashingly for several years, solidifying Holmes as one of America's earliest and most notorious serial killers.
Rudy rose like a comet through the upper echelons of the wine world, quickly becoming the man who the top 1 percent would go to to procure the world's rarest bottles of vino. So impossibly exquisite was his cellar that one day a French winery called his bluff, cleverly requesting an extremely rare collection (that didn't exist). When Kurniawan showed up with a case of the mythical wines, it became clear that he'd been forging famous, high-priced wine labels using his home printer and sticking them on lesser bottles. All told, Rudy faked his way into a fortune.
No list would be complete without good old Bernie Madoff. The man who made off with billions in investment funds holds the title as the biggest single defrauder in American history. Another one of Wall Street's dubious boys, Madoff reportedly scammed upwards of $56 billion from unsuspecting clients.
Carlos Kaiser may be a Brazilian national, but his lovable antics have earned him an honorable mention on this list of gutsy grifters. Kaiser is the only man to have ever reached the heights of professional soccer in Mexico, Europe, and Brazil, without ever having played a single game.
Using charm, a toy cellphone, and lots of bullshit, Kaiser built a reputation as a lethal striker by befriending press and fellow athletes. Whenever it came time for him to suit up, he'd "injure" his hamstring and be benched until another trade would materialize. His reign of superstardom lasted from 1979-1992, until it finally came time to hang up his cleats. No charges were ever brought against him as he was too well-liked in the sport for anyone to hold a grudge. Carlos Kaiser, you are a hero to us all.