History is full of criminals who have made their names by doing something awful, but these 7 tricksters relied on their brains and managed to make a fortune by outsmarting everyone else:
1. The Soap Bar Swindler
Jefferson Smith II was one of the most famous criminals of the Old West, but "Soapy" didn't have to rob any stagecoaches to make his money. Smith's favorite scam was the soap market - he would sell bars of soap for a dollar each, promising that one bar had a $100 bill inside. People bought up the soap, but the lucky bar always wound up in the hands of Soapy's partner. Somehow, Soapy managed to keep his rigged lottery profitable for 20 years.
2. The Man Who Sold New York
If you've ever told someone gullible "if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you" you can thank George C. Parker for the expression. Parker fooled tourists visiting the Big Apple by selling them landmarks including Madison Square Garden, the Met Museum and the Statue of Liberty. His favorite scam was selling the rights to put toll booths on the Brooklyn bridge, which he reportedly did twice a week for years.
3. The Original Ponzi Scheme
You might have heard of a Ponzi scheme, a scam where one person collects money from more and more people, paying back the victims as they collect even more money from even more victims. Charles Ponzi was the first man to think up this devious "get rich quick" scheme, promising to double a victim's money in 3 months. He managed to collect $20 million before he was caught, but wound up dying poor in Italy.
4. The Man Who Sold The Mona Lisa
When the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, Eduardo de Valfierno made the most of its disappearance. He convinced a number of wealthy buyers that he was in possession of the masterpiece, and paid for 6 very convincing fakes of the portrait to be made. Valfierno sold all 6 of his copies to gullible buyers, pocketing the money while the actual thief was caught.
Bear in mind, while we know the painting was stolen, the only account of Valfierno's crime was written by Karl Decker, who was famous for adding "colorful details" to his stories, so the story of Valfierno might be a con too!
5. The Man Who Invented A Country
Gregor MacGregor served in South America as a member of the British Army in the 1800s, so investors believed him when he claimed to be a "cazique" or prince from the New World. He collected money from investors and colonists hoping to move to his country of Poyais.
Most of the first immigrants to MacGregor's fake country died after finding themselves in the jungles of Honduras, but even after he served jail time for fraud European nobles still tried to invest in Poyais. It just goes to show that a little confidence can take you anywhere - except Poyais!
6. The Man Who Sold The Eiffel Tower - TWICE
After the first World War, the city of Paris struggled to keep the Eiffel Tower in good shape. The tourist attraction was only meant to stay up temporarily, and maintenance costs were skyrocketing. Con man Victor Lustig used this as the inspiration for one of history's greatest scams.
Lustig posed as a city official and tricked a scrap iron dealer into secretly "buying" the tower. By the time the victim realize he had been cheated, he was too embarrassed to call the police, so Lustig managed to con a second dealer before being caught.
7. "Catch Me If You Can"
Frank Abagnale was a born trickster, who pulled his first con as a teenager when he bought car parts on his dad's credit card and returned them for cash. His signature crime was cashing bad checks, which earned him more than $2.5 million in 26 different countries.
He also had a talent for impersonation. He would fly around the world for free by posing as a Pan Am pilot (pilots got free flights, even on other companies' planes), worked as a medical supervisor in a hospital for a year and even worked as a lawyer. To pull that off, he had to pass the bar exam, which he did despite never going to law school.
Abagnale's life inspired the movie Catch Me if You Can, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. Today he uses his evil genius for good, working as a security consultant and teaching the world's biggest companies to outsmart fraudsters like him.
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