Unspeakable Times

The 12 Most Insane Ponzi Schemes And Money Scams In History

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.

  • Charles Ponzi Created The Ponzi Scheme In 1918

    Charles Ponzi Created The Ponzi Scheme In 1918
    Photo: US Government / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    You've probably heard of a Ponzi Scheme before, but you may not know that it was invented by Italian immigrant Charles Ponzi in the early 1900s. He arrived in America without much money, but that all changed when he set up a business called the "Securities Exchange Company." Ponzi offered investments that would pay back 100% interest on the original investment after 90 days. However, he never actually invested money for anyone - he was using one investor's cash to pay off another investor, and so on.

    Ponzi was able to keep up the illusion for about two years before being caught. At one point, he was reportedly raking in $250,000 a day.

  • Frank Abagnale Jr. Said He Impersonated A Doctor, A Pilot, A Lawyer, And More

    Frank Abagnale Jr. Said He Impersonated A Doctor, A Pilot, A Lawyer, And More
    Photo: Abagnale & Associates / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Frank Abagnale Jr. was so good at conning people that he made a career out of it. Before getting caught in 1969, Abagnale successfully posed as a doctor, an airline pilot, a college professor, and a lawyer, despite having no training in any of those fields. During the 1960s, he passed about $2.5 million in fake checks all over the world. After spending some time in jail for his crimes, he opened Abagnale & Associates to help companies detect fraud.

    His exploits inspired the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

    In 2020, however, author Alan C. Logan published The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can, which suggests Abagnale's story, and the details featured in the film, were a con, too. Through interviews and basic research of public records like court documents, Logan uncovered plenty of lies. Logan told The Pulse podcast, "Abagnale’s narrative that between the ages of 16 and 20, he was on the run, chased all over the United States and even internationally by the FBI... is completely fictitious. Public records obtained by me show that he was confined for the most part in prison during those years."  

  • Bernie Madoff Orchestrated A $65 Billion Ponzi Scheme

    Bernie Madoff Orchestrated A $65 Billion Ponzi Scheme
    Photo: U.S. Department of Justice / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bernard Madoff is responsible for orchestrating the biggest fraud in U.S. history. He conned more than 1,300 investors out of $65 billion over the course of several years, causing many of his victims to be destroyed financially. He even managed to con some celebrities, including Kevin Bacon and Steven Spielberg.

    Madoff used the tried-and-true Ponzi scheme. He promised investors unusually high returns on their money, and as he gained new investors, he used their money to pay off the old ones so as to seem legitimate. However, Madoff pocketed the extra money himself. He was arrested in 2008, convicted, and sentenced to 150 years in prison.

  • Anna Anderson Claimed To Be Princess Anastasia

    In July 1918, Russian revolutionaries executed Czar Nicholas II and his family in a basement. Two years later, Anna Anderson emerged, claiming to be the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, the heir to the Romanov line. She said that two brothers had carried her out of the basement on the night of the shooting and took her to safety in Romania. Romanov relatives didn't believe her story, but Anderson did gain the support of several prominent people. Her tale served as the inspiration for the 1956 movie Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman.

    DNA testing performed after Anderson's death in 1984 finally confirmed that her story was false.