Unspeakable Times

The 12 Most Insane Ponzi Schemes And Money Scams In History  

Cristina Sanza
16.1k views 12 items

There's nothing like a good con game story. Anyone who has moved to the big city can tell you how they were swindled out of a dollar on the subway, or how someone came knocking at their door with a suspicious-sounding sob story. And then there are the long cons, the con games that last for months - or even years. The amount of planning and risk involved in those types of schemes are extraordinary, and you have to be pretty charming and extremely smart to pull them off.

The people behind the biggest swindles are larger-than-life characters. Take the case of a man known as "The Great Imposter," who was able to perform surgery on people after just glancing at a textbook, or the con artist who was able to sell the Eiffel Tower as scrap metal - twice.

These are the stories of some of the greatest con men and women in history. By the time you're done reading, you'll never trust anyone again.

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Ferdinand Demara Was Known As "The Great Imposter"
Ferdinand Demara Was Known As ... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The 12 Most Insane Ponzi Schemes And Money Scams In History
Photo: Associated Newspapers/via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Ferdinand Demara was born in 1921, but every story about his life after that might be made up. Armed with a high I.Q., a photographic memory, and plenty of nerve, he used a series of stolen identities to impersonate a number of individuals. Over the years, "The Great Imposter" worked as a zoologist, a civil engineer, a Trappist and a Benedictine monk, and a prison warden, among many other positions.

Demara's fall came during the Korean War. He was posing as a doctor on a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer, and several wounded men were brought onboard. Called upon to tend their injuries, Demara briefly glanced at a textbook and started performing life-saving surgeries. News of his heroism spread - and people began realizing he was a fraud. Demara was too famous to continue his activities after that.

Lou Pearlman Managed Boy Bands While Running A Ponzi Scheme
Lou Pearlman Managed Boy Bands... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The 12 Most Insane Ponzi Schemes And Money Scams In History
Photo: Hola53/via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Lou Pearlman gained success after creating the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, but he also spent 20 years getting his friends and family to invest in fake businesses like Trans Continental Airline Travel Services, Inc. Many of the people he scammed were elderly and lost their life savings because of him. He was arrested in 2007, and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Pearlman claimed he was planning to pay the money back. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from behind bars in 2014, he said, "He [Bernie Madoff] was just a scamster. I don't think it was right, what he did. But I had my way to make it all right. I just didn't have my chance to do it... If I was given a chance to put another band together, that would have paid everybody back. But I never had that opportunity, and that's what was very upsetting."

Victor Lustig Sold The Eiffel Tower To Unsuspecting Metal Dealers
Victor Lustig Sold The Eiffel ... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The 12 Most Insane Ponzi Schemes And Money Scams In History
Photo: Henri Baranger/via Wikimedia Commons/Copyrighted Free Use

Victor Lustig managed to pull several cons in his life, but he's best known for selling the Eiffel Tower as scrap metal to unsuspecting dealers. In 1925, he noticed an article debating whether the Eiffel Tower should be repaired or sold, and decided to sell it to metal dealers himself. Using a fake government title, he met with several dealers and told them the tower had become too expensive to repair. One dealer, Andre Poisson, fell for the scheme and handed over a check. Lustig cashed it and disappeared, but Poisson was too embarrassed to report the incident to the police.

When Lustig realized he wasn't being pursued, he went back to Paris and pulled the same con a second time. This would-be investor reported Lustig, and he fled to America. He was later arrested on different charges.

David Hampton Conned Rich New Yorkers By Claiming To Be Sidney Poitier's Son
David Hampton Conned Rich New ... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The 12 Most Insane Ponzi Schemes And Money Scams In History
Photo: MGM

In the 1980s, David Hampton figured out a way to con wealthy New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars. He gained their trust and appealed to their desire to be around famous people by claiming that he was the son of actor and director Sidney Poitier. He was eventually arrested, and served 21 months in prison for theft.

His hoax inspired the play Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, which used many details from his crimes. A film version was made in 1993 starring Will Smith. Hampton tried to sue Guare for $100 million; he lost.