Scams and scandals
P.T. Barnum, the great American showman and circus owner, is credited with the observation, “There’s a sucker born every minute”.
Bernard Madoff (pronounced “made off”), perpetrated the biggest financial fraud in history and “madoff” with about US$50 billion of other people’s money. Long before Madoff, there was the man whose exploits led to the cynical response to the credulous, “If you believe that, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”
Shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, a 20-year-old named George C. Parker tried to get a tourist to the Big Apple to buy the bridge.
The tourist bit and a full-fledged scam was started.
Parker dropped all his other scams and went into selling the Brooklyn Bridge full-time. He would introduce himself to a prospective “mark” as the owner of the bridge. He told the person that he was planning to set up a toll booth and offered the person a job to collect the tolls.
Naïve tourists offered to buy the bridge, set up the booth and keep the toll money. People paid Parker amounts ranging from US$50 to US$5 000 for the bridge. Parker ran the scam from 1883 to 1928 (45 years) before he was sentenced to life in the notorious Sing-Sing prison.
A year after Parker was convicted, a man calling himself “T. Remington Grenfall” from “The Grand Central Holding Corporation” sold two brothers, fruit sellers Tony and Nick Fortunato, the information booth of New York’s Grand Central Station.
Grenfall explained that the booth would no longer be in use and he was authorized to rent out the space to fruit merchants. The Fortunatos handed over a cheque for US$100 000 to Grenfall’s partner “Wilson A. Blodgett”, who purported to be the president of the company. These fraudsters were never caught.
In 1925, a Czech con artist named Victor Lustig found out that the Eiffel Tower needed major repairs. He went to Paris and posed as “Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs”.
He got in touch with six of France’s biggest scrap iron dealers and told them that the Government was going to tear down the tower because it was too expensive to maintain.
Because of the fear of a popular uprising over the destruction of the tower, he swore the dealers to secrecy and then invited bids for the demolition and salvage. He asked for and received a US$100 000 bribe from one of the dealers and quickly boarded a train to Vienna.
The dealer did not contact the police so Lustig returned to France and sold the tower for the second time to one of the other dealers. When this one reported the matter to the police, Lustig left for the greener pastures of the United States, where he continued his con man career.
In 2008, The Times newspaper highlighted Ten Of The World’s Greatest Frauds. They started with Charles Ponzi who begat Madoff. Kenneth Lay of Enron was second on the list for a US$60million fraud and was followed by rogue trader Nick Leeson who caused Barings, the oldest merchant bank, to collapse in 1995. Alves des Reis forged today’s equivalent of US$150 trillion in Portuguese escudos and then laundered the money for 25 per cent of the value.
Jerôme Kerviel was another rogue trader, this time with European Bank Société Générale, and perpetrated a US$5billion fraud in 1998.
Recently in Australia a company advertised imported hard core pornographic videos. People placed orders and paid by cheque. After several weeks, the company wrote back explaining that under the present law they were unable to supply the materials and did not wish to be prosecuted. They returned their customers’ money in the form of company cheques. Few people were willing to cash cheques from a company called “The Anal Sex and Fetish Perversion Company”.
The list of scams, scandals and skulduggery make it easy to believe that we in the West Indies are fortunate never to have a scam like that.
• Tony Deyal is now convinced that psychics are the biggest scammers of all. He almost had a psychic girlfriend but when she found out he was broke she left him before they met.