Arts and Culture | Greatest Cons in History

Greatest Cons in History
by S. Roberts

Cons or known before as “Confidence tricks” were used as an attempt to swindle someone after earning their trust or “confidence”. People who do cons are called Confidence man or in short “con-man”. They prey on people who are naïve and irresponsible. Over the years, many cons have happened, here are the top 3 greatest cons in history.

1. Victor Lustig’s Eiffel Tower Scam

Robert V. Miller or infamously known as Victor Lustig, was born in Bohemia (Czech Republic).

He started learning the art of con when he was still 19. His most famous scam was when he sold the Eifel Tower not once, but twice!

Both he got out scot- free!

It all started when he was travelling to Paris and was thinking of a con. During his trip to Paris, he read from the papers an article about how expensive the maintenance of the Eiffel Tower is. Some Parisians were getting annoyed and wanted to get rid of the monument or at least move it somewhere else. Lustig immediately took the opportunity and thought of one of the greatest scam in the history of scams. As Lustig arrive in Paris, he started working on his con. He started to forge government credentials and named himself as Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes.

The Eiffel Tower

After making the fake documents, he set up a meeting with a group of scrap metal dealers and told them that the city was planning on selling the tower for scrap. He also told the scrap metal dealers that the officials wanted to keep the plan of selling the monument as a secret for it may anger the citizens. One dealer whose name was André Poisson, put down a bid and Victor Lustig sold it to him. After, Lustig immediately went to Austria to keep a low profile and André Poisson went to the city officials to take what he purchased, but the officials didn't have any idea about the deal he made with Victor Lustig.

Poisson was too ashamed about him getting conned that he didn't go to the police to report it.

After a month, Victor travelled back to Paris and tried to sell the Eiffel tower once again. He met with another group of scrap metal dealers willing to buy the tower, unlike how he duped André Poisson, the police were informed about his anomaly and sought to arrest Lustig. As soon as Victor found out that his con failed, he immediately fled to the United States in order to dodge arrest.

2. Gregor MacGregor, Prince of the made up American country, “Poyais”

View of the Port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais

View of the Port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais

Gregor MacGregor was born on December 24 in Edinburgh. MacGregor joined the Royal Navy in 1803 and became a Colonel in the Venezuelan War of Independence. In 1820 he and his wife arrived in London. Upon arriving, MacGregor started to tell people how he is the Prince of the Principality of a country which he made and up and called it Poyais.

He started to tell others that Poyais is an independent nation on the Bay of Handuras and was given to him by the local native chief, hence him being royalty. His con began when he started to sell some of his shares in his new country and in October 1822 he raised a loan of 200,000 pounds. His con grew as he started to publish and sell a 350 paged Poyais guidebook.

Gregor MacGregor

Gregor MacGregor

Gregor Macgregor named a Legate of Poyais who recruited about 70 colonists to sail from London to the Honduras Packet. The colonists recruited even converted their Sterling into Poyais dollars which was also printed by the conman himself, Gregor.

In 1823, the colonists which boarded the ship called Kennersley Castle arrived in the Bay of Honduras and when they disembarked the ship, they saw nothing but a virgin jungle and some native settlers.

A month living in the island, a ship from British Honduras found the settlers and were evacuated out of the island. As the colonists and settlers arrived back in London, news about how MacGregor scammed them spread like wildfire and he escaped and avoided getting arrested.

A year later, MacGregor tried to establish the "Compagnie de la Nouvelle Neustrie" to promote how Poyais was colonized by France. He tried to con the French and even raised about 300,000 loan and also sold shares in the new colony to the willing and naive French investors. As the talk about the Prince of the Principality of Poyais, the French authorities took an interest, especially when they knew about a ship full of its citizens was about to set sail for a made-up country. The authorities seized the ship before it had the chance to sail. Gregor MacGregor's con failed and the people who were involved got arrested and soon Gregor MacGregor himself.

MacGregor returned to London in 1826 and tried for the third time to raise an 800,000 pounds loan for Poyais but potential investors are beginning to be wary and other Conmen were trying to get on his con and tried to sell Poyais by the acre. As late as 1837, Gregor MacGregor was still trying to sell Poyais land certificates in Edinburgh and he eventually gave up not long afterwards his return to Venezuela in 1839.

3. Alves dos Reis and the Portuguese Bank Note Crisis

Alves dos Reis

Alves dos Reis

Artur Virgilio Alves Reis also known as Alves dos Reis was born on September 8 in Lisbon, Portugal. He was a Portuguese criminal who concocted one of the largest frauds in history.

Alves managed to snake hi way into wealth and success through his specialty which was forging documents. In 1925 he got arrested for embezzlement, and that was when he started to cook up a scheme that would cause a huge economic crisis that will also lead to a nationalist military coup d'etat.

Reis and his associates who he also deceived by convincing them that what they were about to do was supported by the secret support of the bank tried to forged a document in the name of the Central Bank of Portugal; the establishment responsible for making the supply of Portuguese currency. Reis took the documents he forged and brought it to William Waterlow, who he convinced to print him the new cash. Since the company Waterlow |& Sons use original plates of the notes printed for Reis, the cash were indistinguishable for the official prints.

At one point, Waterlow realized that the serial numbers printed were already used in previous runs, he contacted the bank, but the contact Reis gave the company was himself and he told them that it was okay. Reis managed to have 200,000 copies of 500 escudos bank notes printed which totaled to 100 million escudos and was also .88% of Portugal's GDP at that time. His various purchase of real estate and luxury goods even created a mini-boom in Portugal's economy.

Quinhentos Escudos

Reis' final phase of his scam was to buy himself a stake in the Bank of Portugal, which would allow him to retroactively approve his unauthorized notes.

A journalist from O Século was sent out to dig into the bank and Reis. They began to question how it was possible that Reis' bank, Banko de Angola e Metrópole, gave loans with low interest rates without the need receiving deposits.

Eventually Reis' bank got investigated for illegally buying foreign- backed currencies.

By luck, the authorities managed to discover notes that were illegal duplicates. And with that, the authorities finally had proof of the counterfeiting.

Reis received a 20-year prison sentence of which he only served 15.

Despite the fact that technology and security has evolved— this doesn’t mean that these scams aren’t possible today. In fact, it’ll be smarter and more believable.

So when you think something smells fishy or just too good to be true—be careful. You might want to do a research or background check on these things.