9 Most Notorious Con Artists In History And Their Famous Scams

There have been numerous con artists in history who pulled off outrageous scams like creating fake billion-dollar companies and selling monuments like the Taj Mahal. Read on to learn about the 9 most notorious con artists in history and their famous scams.
9 Most Notorious Con Artists in History and Their Famous Scams
9 Most Notorious Con Artists in History and Their Famous Scams

Humans, like all primates, evolved in the wilderness. Survival was crucial at the time, and humans developed numerous defence mechanisms to get by. One such defence mechanism was deception, and it’s still widely employed.

Other animals too use deception to ward off attacks or to lure prey, but they lack the ability to communicate. The act of using deception in communication is called lying, and it goes back thousands of years.

People frequently lie to get their way, make a sale, crack an interview, or influence other people, as politicians and cults do. However, some individuals are cut above the rest when it comes to deception.

There have been people in history who sold monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal; created fake companies and became insanely rich, or impersonated someone famous and lived their life. These con artists’ tales range from downright improbable to why-didn’t-I-think-of-that. On that note, take a look at the 9 most notorious con artists of all time.

9 Most Notorious Con Artists in History and Their Famous Scams

1. Charles Ponzi

Charles Ponzi was an Italian businessman and swindler who was responsible for duping thousands of investors in the early 20th century. Ponzi cheated investors out of an estimated $32 million, which would be valued at nearly half a billion dollars today. Although Ponzi wasn’t the first to attempt it, the con he pulled off was so humongous and out of this world that it was named after him: the Ponzi scheme.

Ponzi enjoyed a lavish lifestyle before getting caught. After spending years in and out of prison, he was deported to Italy before World War II and moved to Brazil, where he died penniless and alone.

The Ponzi scheme is a simple yet effective con that continues to evolve and trouble unassuming investors even today. It involves falsely promising people high returns on their investment, paying them from previous investors’ money, and continuing the cycle till it gets bigger and bigger.

Numerous others have successfully orchestrated Ponzi schemes in the years since then. American trader Bernie Madoff made almost $19 billion with a Ponzi scheme before getting caught in 2008.

2. Natwarlal

Natwarlal (Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava) was an Indian con man who sold the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Natwarlal is regarded as one of the most prolific con artists of all time. He attempted almost all types of scams and cons and even orchestrated numerous prison escapes.

Natwarlal began forging cheques at a young age before forging documents and then pulling off elaborate scams. He duped scores of shop owners, prostitutes, jewellers, bankers, and foreigners out of lakhs of rupees. Natwarlal is also known for his high intelligence and for coming up with innovative cons. His best-known exploits are perhaps the sales of the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Natwarlal became a Robin Hood figure due to the non-violent nature of his crimes and the fact that he mostly targeted the rich. He was treated like a celebrity in his village and often donated his loot to the poor. Natwarlal spent around two decades in prison and escaped in 1996 at the age of 84.

3. Sylvia Browne

Sylvia Browne was an American author and self-proclaimed psychic who claimed that she could talk to God. She became a renowned television and radio personality in the late 20th century, regularly appearing on talk shows and performing seances. Browne also wrote over 40 books, some of which were featured on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

Sylvia Browne also claimed to have observed heaven and angels. However, Browne found herself in trouble when she began manipulating grieving and needy people. She often met with relatives of missing persons and falsely suggested what happened to the victims. While she was playing with the feelings of victims, Browne was also committing investment fraud and scamming her gullible supporters.

4. False Dmitry

There are impersonators, and then there are impersonators who pass themselves off as the ruler of one of the largest empires in the world. False Dmitry is such a moniker that is used to denote imposters who pretended to be Dmitry Ivanovich of Russia, the youngest son of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. There were no photos or paintings at the time for everyone to identify the royal family.

Many imposters attempted to seize the throne of Russia, some of whom almost succeeded as well. Overall, three false Dmitrys arose, all three from humble beginnings and with a dream of conquering Russia. False Dmitry I was killed 11 months after being crowned king, and his wife accepted False Dmitry II as her fallen husband.

5. Gregor MacGregor

Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer who sold off a fictitious utopian South American island to investors in London. After marrying a wealthy woman, MacGregor tried to live off as an aristocrat in London but to no avail. After the death of his wife, he moved to Venezuela, where he married another well-off woman and assisted in the war against Spain.

In 1821, MacGregor and his wife returned to Britain, and he began calling himself the Cazique (prince) of Poyais, an island kingdom in the Bay of Honduras. Macgregor made outlandish claims that the island had rivers of gold, fertile land, a thriving harbour, and was ready to be colonized. He also produced fake currency, a flag, maps, land grants, and documents to boost the credibility of his claims. MacGregor fulfilled his dream of being inducted into high society by selling land in Poyais.

However, when the settlers arrived at the said island, they found nothing but desolate wilderness. Many of them perished due to diseases, and hundreds of thousands of pounds were lost. MacGregor continued to fool people, before moving to France and then retiring in Venezuela, where he spent his remaining years.

6. Amy Bock

Amy Bock was a Tasmanian-born New Zealand trickster who committed petty fraud for most of her life. She used to make emotional appeals to her employers or other unsuspecting acquaintances to procure money, property, watches, etc., and then flee.

Bock continued these scams for most of her life, but after her release from prison, she orchestrated one of the most brazen cons of all time. She masqueraded as a rich sheep farmer, Percy Redwood, to woo a wealthy woman, Agnes Ottaway. The pair even married, but Bock’s con was short-lived, as she was arrested for fraud within three days of the marriage.

7. William Thompson

William Thompson was an American criminal whose exploits gave rise to the term "confidence man," now known as "con man." Thompson operated in upstate New York and approached wealthy upper-class people and gained their trust, or "confidence." Thompson would then make demands, asking for money or other valuable items like watches. He’d then bolt with the items.

8. Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale is an American convicted felon who, in his teenage years and early 20s, orchestrated a countrywide cheque fraud scam, stealing millions of dollars. He also impersonated a doctor, a lawyer, and a pilot. Abagnale even logged 2 million miles of flying and reportedly cleared the bar exam. He committed fraud in 12 countries and was arrested at the age of 21.

As per his own account, Abagnale worked as a consultant for the FBI after serving his sentence and helped catch other cheque forgers. Some of his claims have been debunked by journalists and the FBI itself, but Abagnale always maintained that he overdramatised his exploits. And these new developments only bolster his scamster status. He conned people about conning people.

Abagnale was the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.

9. Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes was a Silicon Valley bigwig who gave Mark Zuckerberg a run for his money. In 2003, Holmes dropped out of Stanford University and founded Theranos, a health tech company that claimed to have revolutionised blood testing. Theranos’ growth skyrocketed, and by 2015, Holmes was declared the youngest and richest self-made female billionaire in the world.

Theranos was valued at $9 billion, but shockingly, all that success was built on lies. Within one year, Holmes’ net worth dropped to zero after Theranos’ fraudulent claims came to light. Investigations revealed that Holmes had been misleading investors and regulators for years through false or exaggerated assertions about Theranos’ blood testing technology.

Holmes is currently awaiting sentencing and could go to jail for up to 20 years. She was the subject of the 2022 Hulu miniseries, The Dropout.

Conclusion:

Conning someone is not an easy task. It takes a master manipulator to make people give up their most prized possessions. But even though it’s a difficult task, con artists are no saints. They hurt people emotionally and financially, leaving them vulnerable in a cutthroat world. Most con artists, no matter how successful, get caught eventually and die alone in poverty. We’ve laid out some such individuals for you in the list of the 9 most notorious con artists in history and their famous scams. Hopefully, you learnt something new and intriguing from the list. Keep reading Jagran Josh for more such accounts. Check similar articles below.

 

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FAQ

Who is the most famous con artist in India?

Natwarlal is the biggest con artist from India. He operated in the mid-twentieth century and committed brazen cons like selling off the Taj Mahal and scamming well-known people like the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis. Natwarlal was caught many times but orchestrated numerous prison escapes as well.

Who is the biggest con artist ever?

There have been several fraudsters and con artists in history, but none have been able to pull off what Charles Ponzi did. In 1920, he made nearly half a billion dollars (by today’s valuation) in just over a year. Ponzi scammed thousands of people and popularised a scheme that continues to con people even today.

How do con artists fool people?

Con artists cannot just fool anyone. They meet multiple people and try to manipulate them. Some see through their malicious intentions and run while the gullible ones end up getting scammed. Con artists are also narcissistic and lack the ability to feel guilt. This makes them indifferent to others’ sufferings, and they continue to scam and trick people till they die or get caught.
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