by Luis Prada
You might’ve met a con artist or two in your life. Some small time hucksters who drifted into town, looking to rip people off with fake Rolexes and dummy insurance plans before beating feet with a meager fistful of loot, never to be seen again. Not every con artist is a small time crook, though. There’s a select few who elevated ripping people off from the lowly levels of the common swindler to heights so grand they put the “art” in con artist.
A British Conman Convinced 30 People To Participate In A Fake Reality Show
It has become known as the Great Reality TV Swindle, and its perpetrator was a British man by the name of Nik Russian, who really should go into business, creating ridiculous fake names. He looked and spoke exactly like the high-powered TV producer he convinced his victims he was. In 2002, Russian put out advertisements in British tabloid and entertainment newspapers, seeking participants for a brand-new reality show where the winner could walk away with £100,000. Over 1,000 email responses were boiled down to a few live auditions that resulted in a final cast of 30 rubes. They were divided into three teams of 10, with each told to meet on the same day in different locations around London to begin filming.
"Quick show of hands: is anyone here to make friends?"
The show required a year's worth of the contestants' time. This meant that many of them quit their jobs, dropped out of school, or left their relationships to take part on the 1 in 30 chance they’d win a whole lot of money that would hopefully make the entire effort worth it. Because, evidently, "reality TV" is the modern version of, "There's gold in them there hills! Gas up the horse, I'm OUTTIE!"
From the moment contestants were given their first instructions, they knew something was a little off. Where most reality shows give contestants a huge, beautifully decorated home to live in for the shoot, these contestants were tasked with finding their own place to live as they competed to achieve the show’s win condition, which was to make £1 million in a year. You read that right: in order to win £100,000 contestants had to make ten times that much while essentially being homeless.
Two of the three teams disbanded by day two. One team remained. This dedicated team slept on the floor of their cameraman’s apartment and created a reality TV Inception by filming their own reality TV show about their time within Nik Russian’s reality TV show. They even set up their own confessional room so they could speak directly to the camera for those diary-like cutaways reality shows love to pepper throughout an episode.
"I'm Chad Cartoon -- a genuine hu-man, like the other contestants."
Here’s where it gets really weird: Nik Russian was living with them. After a couple days of 10 people sleeping on his floors, the cameraman got fed up and told the story to a local news show. The contestants locked Russian in the apartment so he couldn’t run away from the journalists when they arrived. The remaining team disbanded a couple of days later. And the word "stupid" forever obtained an asterisk in the dictionary.
Nik Russian, whose real name turned out to be Keith Anthony Gillard, wasn’t a TV producer and didn’t actually have any networks interested in whatever it was he was doing. He was never brought up on charges of any kind since he never took anyone’s money or caused anyone any harm.
When you really think about it, it's a pretty admirable con. We'd totally watch a season of "You Guys Get Rich While I Sleep On Your Floor."
Carlos Kaiser Was One Of The Greatest Soccer Players To Never Play The Game
If you removed soccer from Brazil, the entire nation would have a collective identity crisis. It’s practically a religion. Playing on one of their professional teams means you’re among the best players in the world. One man was fortunate enough to play on four of Brazil’s biggest teams. He must’ve been pretty good if he impressed that many people on that high of a level. But no one really knows how good Carlos Kaiser was because he never played a single game.
"Dooon't stop! Be-liieeevin'!"
That’s because Kaiser wasn’t actually a very good soccer player. In fact, you could barely call him a soccer player at all. He had almost no experience playing the game but was a huge fan. He just wanted to be a part of it. So, using his superhuman abilities to smooth talk anyone, he hyped himself up to be one of the best soccer players in Brazil while never once having to prove it.
“I just didn’t want to play. It’s everybody else’s problem if they want me to be a footballer. Not even Jesus pleased everybody. Why would I?”
His cons followed the same pattern. Once he talked his way onto a roster, he’d get “injured” during his first practice. Then he’d just kinda hang around the other players, letting his natural abundance of charisma burrow itself into the hearts and minds of the entire organization. Even if he never played, teammates felt like his presence was necessary to keeping up team morale. When he wasn’t faking injuries, he was fictionally killing off his grandmother multiple times to get out of proving himself on the field. One team brought in a witch doctor to perform healing rituals so they could finally see his supposed greatness. To perpetuate the myth of his skill while he sat back hobnobbing with soccer greats, he’d pull off little tricks like paying spectators to sing songs about him when the team’s owner was around.
"Also, could you sing it in the style of REO Speedwagon?"
One of the team's owners was a known criminal named Castor de Andrade -- otherwise known at the time as Brazil’s most dangerous man. Despite the constant “injuries,” Castor loved Kaiser for the same reasons everybody else did: he was just a cool guy. But during one particularly horrible match, Castor saw no other alternative but to finally see what his investment could do for his struggling team. Via walkie-talkie, Castor signaled to the coach that it was time to put Kaiser in the game. Terrified that the jig might be up, Kaiser scrambled for a way to get out of it. While he was warming up, a fan in the stands hurled some offensive obscenities at him, which he used as an excuse to leap into the crowd and start a brawl that resulted in his ejection from the game.
There are other impressive things about Kaiser, like how he once ate 70 slices of pizza at a single sitting, but perhaps the most impressive of all is that he was never once jailed or in any way punished for his decades of scamming. He’s like a Brazilian Ferris Bueller.
George C. Parker “Sold” Every Famous New York Landmark To Unsuspecting Tourists
Any old con artist can talk someone into buying a knockoff purse by convincing them it’s the real deal. That stuff is Con Artistry 101. It takes real talent to convince someone to buy a landmark the seller has no legal ownership over and, just logically, isn’t something that would be sold at all. But that’s exactly what the early 20th century con artist George C. Parker did for just about every one of New York’s most famous structures.
"For you? ... Six bucks."
Most famously, he sold the Brooklyn Bridge to unsuspecting tourists. Twice. Once he found a gullible mark, he’d introduce himself as the owner of the bridge. Then, he’d gauge their interest in possibly managing its tollbooth for him. If they seemed interested, he’d gently veer the conversation over to the topic of possibly selling the bridge to the tourist so they could pocket 100% of the toll’s profits. He pulled this off using little conversational tricks that made the mark think that buying the bridge was entirely their own idea; that they were swindling him. We don’t know exactly how George phrased any of this, because if we did you’d be the proud owner of the Internet by the end of this paragraph.
The con worked so well that George did it again a couple days later. Then he figured, why stop at the Brooklyn Bridge? New York is loaded with impressive landmarks unsuspecting tourists would love to own. Madison Square Garden? The Statue of Liberty? The Metropolitan Museum of Art? No world famous New York landmark went unsold.
"For an extra ten grand, I'll throw in the sun."
George was eventually convicted of fraud and sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison. Which we assume he later sold to one of the guards.
Jon Spano Nearly Bought A Professional Hockey Team With Money He Didn’t Have
New York Islanders fans desperately wanted Jon Spano as the team’s new owner. They could sense he genuinely cared about turning a fledgling franchise back into the Stanley Cup-winning powerhouse it once was. Spano had the will and seemingly more than enough money to do it.
Only, he didn’t. Not even close. He was a fraud who scammed his way to within a hair’s width of owning a professional sports franchise.
"OK, give me your best douche face ... aaaaand perfect."
His fraudulence began with a series of lies that set the table for the big con to come. He ran in the same circles as a bunch of fancy rich folks in Dallas, Texas, where he had established himself as one of their own. He spun wild tales about how he had a hefty trust fund in a Cayman Island bank account, ready to be invested in something big. To make all of that seem legit, he falsified every financial document he could get his hands on to make it seem like he was worth well over $100 million. His paperwork duped accounting firms, banks and everyone at the NHL into thinking he was the living embodiment of the Monopoly man. At one point, he even managed to get an $80 million bank loan. He said it was easier than getting his first car loan. People just assumed he was rich because he told them he was, and no one really bothered to look into it.
He would have been the Islanders’ new owner, if not for a couple of boneheaded mistakes. Like when he sent a fax from his home instead of from a bank in Dallas, which is like trying to prank call someone when you’re standing next to them. Soon, a local newspaper dug into his finances and the whole scheme fell apart. But here’s the kicker: by that point, he had technically owned the team for four months, it just wasn’t 100% official yet. The fact that in that time he didn’t change the team's logo to a picture of him sitting on a throne of skulls proves that he probably wouldn’t have been that great of an owner anyway.
Victor Lustig Was A Suave, Brilliant Conman Who “Sold” The Eiffel Tower
George C. Parker may have made a name for himself by selling landmarks to guileless tourists, but Victor Lustig of Austria-Hungary one-upped him by “selling” one of the most famous structures on earth to someone who should have known better.
Victor was wanted on counterfeiting charges in both the United States and in Europe. His favorite con involved what he called a “money box,” a contraption that could print perfect counterfeit $100 bills, or so Victor claimed. He sold each one for upwards of $46,000 in the 1920s and 30s, which would be roughly $30 gajillion in today’s money.
All magicians have six of these just lying around.
Like all great artists, Victor eventually felt like it was time to spread his wings and tackle a bigger project. So he decided to sell the Eiffel Towerto one lucky scrap metal company in Paris. He began his con by posing as a prominent French government official in letters sent to the top scrap metal companies around town, offering them the chance to go down in the history books as the company who turned the Eiffel Tower into cutlery.
Victor held meetings at a posh Parisian hotel and rented limousines to transport he and his marks to the tower to discuss finer details of the potential deal. He eventually zeroed in on a guy named Andre Poisson, who we're pretty sure later became a 1980s hair metal bassist. He not only talked Poisson into giving him money for the rights to tear down the Eiffel Tower, but convinced Poisson to “bribe” him to guarantee he got the contract over all other interested parties. He made $70,000 on the sale. As for Poisson, well, the poor guy was so embarrassed when he found out he got swindled that he never reported it to the police for fear that people might find out how dumb he was.
If you liked this article, check out "5 Ways Criminals Can Duplicate Your Keys (Without Ever Touching Them)" and "The Weirdest Products That Scammers Have Counterfeited".