While most con artists just try to sell you a shady Rolex for $50, every so often an ambitious grifter comes along claiming that he's actually Mr. Rolex, and that if you give him a million dollars, he will take you to a magical clockwork land where not only can you tell time ... you can tell it what to do. And the craziest part is how often it seems to work. For example ...
Born in the soccer-obsessed hills of Brazil to a soccer legend father, Carlos "Kaiser" Raposo knew that being a player was the best possible life he could hope for. The only hurdle was that he ... wasn't very good at soccer. But what he lacked in ball-handling skills he made up for with charm. He would buddy up with other players and have them vouch for him to get spots on their teams. When a team signed him up, Kaiser would mask his incompetence by bribing another player to brutally tackle him during training so he could fake an injury. If that didn't work, he'd simply have his grandma die again so he'd be too stricken with grief to play. You'd think that after the 19th time, they would've caught on.
It sounds basic, but Kaiser worked insanely hard to convince the world he was the best soccer player nobody had seen play. He spent his free time feeding reporters fake stories about his career, and even carried around a very grainy VHS tape of someone who looked a bit like him scoring incredible goals. He also bought a toy cell phone (this was the '80s, so they all looked fake anyway) and pretended to have long negotiations in foreign languages to drive up his price. Until that one time he was supposedly taking a call from an English team, and the coach informed him that he spoke English and knew Kaiser was spouting gibberish.
Undeterred, Kaiser kept talking himself up until he was known as a "king" of soccer. And it almost got him killed in the end. Eventually his reputation earned him a spot on a top Brazilian team owned by a dangerous gangster who had no time for Kaiser's games. But knowing he would wind up at the bottom of the Guanabara Bay if the owner saw him play, he went for the less painful option: getting his ass kicked by rival fans. Kaiser pretended he heard someone call his father a homophobic slur, started a brawl, and got suspended. Even more impressive, he gave such a sob story to the mobster that it earned him a raise. A year later, Kaiser retired, living up to his legend by never having lost a match. Or won one. Or played one, even.
When 25-year-old Italian Raffaello Follieri arrived in the U.S. in 2003, he saw a business opportunity none of his fellow pope-lovers were partaking in: profiting from pedophilia scandals. At the time, quite a few Catholic dioceses were selling land to settle sexual abuse lawsuits, so using his parents' Vatican connections, he approached dioceses to purchase their land, promising he would turn the property into something tasteful (so no nightclubs, or Methodist chapels, or other dens of depravity). And Follieri laid his divinity on thick; he flew over a famous bishop's nephew to sit in on the meetings, he kept an altar and bishop's vestments in his office, and his receptionist was a bona fide nun.
At first the scheme was going great. Follieri picked up several huge business partners, including billionaire Ron Burkle. But there was a problem: American Catholics didn't need to sell their land cheap to some snot-nosed kid with a few Vatican phone numbers; they just put the properties on the open market. By the time Follieri knew his holy land deal had fallen through, he was already drunk on the swaggering playboy lifestyle. Much worse, he was in a relationship with up-and-coming superstar Anne Hathaway. And seeing as Hathaway had a reputation of being a bit of a princess (both on and off set), he wanted to keep treating her like one -- specifically, Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, who doesn't realize her boyfriend is a broke thief only pretending to be rich.
Instead of coming clean, Follieri started ripping off his investors to fund their incredibly lavish lifestyle. He put himself and Hathaway up in a $37,000-a-month apartment, paid for a VIP dog-walking service, and took her on trips worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was also the kind of guy who didn't think about spending $30,000 flying his personal doctor to London because he felt sick, and he got to shake hands with Bill Clinton after he pledged $50 million to the Clinton Foundation -- all while he truthfully had $39,000 in his bank account. By the time the FBI caught him, he had misspent over $1.3 million of his investor's money.
Ten days before he got nabbed, Hathaway broke up with him, and while Follieri was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison, that might have hurt the most. "Looking back, I think it was all done to impress Anne," one of his staffers later admitted.
When the Sovereign Cherokee Nation Tejas was formed in Texas back in 1974, people had a sneaking suspicion that there was something strange going on. Maybe it was because they knew that the Cherokee already had a nation in Oklahoma. Or maybe it's because all the members of Cherokee in the Sovereign Cherokee Nation Tejas were as white as a Dickensian Christmas Day.
Herbert Williams saw his chance at sovereignty when he spotted a large sandbank created by 1974's Hurricane Beulah, right in the middle of the Rio Grande. Allegedly buying the land off the government for $20,000, he quickly dubbed himself Chief Little Bird On the Shoulder, and the sandbank a Native American "island" that belonged to neither the U.S. nor Mexico, somehow thinking that the middle of a river counted as international waters.
That's not how countries, or borders, or even logic work. Fortunately for Williams, the U.S. government lacked plenty of the latter as well. For decades, the exclusively white Sovereign Cherokee Nation Tejas existed without challenge, and was used in a variety of appropriately piratical schemes. A British con man named Dallas Beasant was made treasurer "Chief Wise Otter," and issued $25 million in "government bonds," which they used to underwrite phony insurance policies. Despite the bonds not being worth a single cent, they were successfully sold to corporate health insurers.
The nation's assets were pretty wild, too. They included a gold mine, "cassette tapes, and a $1.5 million plaster cast of Marlon Brando's face." According to the nation's lawyer, Chief Screaming Eagle (real name Gary), plans had been drawn up to start their own casino, an independent airline free of FAA regulations, and an offshore bank. Although given their location, shouldn't that have been an off-bank bank?
By 1990, the government finally grew suspicious of the group of white dudes running an Indian nation in the middle of a river. A Senate investigation concluded that the Sovereign Cherokee Nation Tejas was "neither sovereign, nor Cherokee, nor a nation," and only existed "to create a haven for financial ventures free of U.S. regulation." Everything was a lie, even the Marlon Brando mask, and the gold mine turned out to merely be a parking lot -- which, in San Francisco at least, is rather close to the truth.
Anthony Gignac is a Colombian man who's made millions pretending to be a Saudi prince. In 1993, Gignac checked into the Grand Bay Hotel in Florida as "Prince Khalid" of the House of Saud. Of course, seeing as it is unseemly for royalty to carry around money, the hotel gladly gave its esteemed guest unlimited credit. Before long, our fake prince owed the hotel $27,000, because life works differently for the rich ... even if you're only pretending. The scam worked a bit too well, however -- when the prince got robbed, the police quickly notified the Saudi embassy, which responded: "Khalid who?"
Gignac was later arrested, and this is when he transformed from con man to con god. He managed to convince his court-appointed lawyer that he was indeed a prince. The lawyer bailed him out and drove him straight to an American Express office, where he demanded a platinum card with a credit line of $200 million. When he couldn't even give his supposed date of birth, the employees were naturally suspicious, but then he threw a tantrum of such princely proportions that AmEx backed down and gave him the card. He spent over $25,000 on it that same day. And it seems AmEx learned nothing from the exchange, since they gave another card to a prince in 2002, who then also turned out to be Gignac.
Since then, Gignac and a friend have used the whole "sweaty Anastasia" routine at least nine times. He even bought fake diplomatic plates off eBay and put "Sultan" on his front door to complete the look. His latest Arabian grift occurred in 2017, when the newly minted "Sultan Bin Khalid Al Saud" met with a Florida company to discuss buying a hotel for $600 million, after which he conned them out of a $50,000 gift, claiming they had insulted his sultan-y honor and needed to pay tribute. Gignac was caught by the police, and has admitted to having stolen over $8 million in the last two years alone. We don't expect he'll stay in prison for long, however. If anything, he'll probably wind up eventually taking over the throne in Saudi Arabia for real.
Alan Young is a former sanitation worker born in Oakland, but you'll know him better as the man who impersonated half of the Motown music scene for most of his life. Young pretended to be Temptations guitarist Cornelius Grant, Temptations lead singer Ali-Ollie Woodson, and jazz legend Marcus Miller, among others -- all highly successful musicians whom you still probably wouldn't recognize on the street. Which is helpful, because Young in no way looks like any of them.
Young's scam was simple. He would arrive in a new town in a flashy suit, contact some local bigwigs pretending to want to invest in their business or donate to their charity, and watch them trip over themselves taking a superstar to expensive dinners and paying for his hotels. It's so hard to resist a Temptation, after all. One of Young's secret weapons was a private airfield with insanely bad security. He would take his marks there, waltzing right in, and then show off a random jet as his own. The scam worked until one executive came back to the airfield alone and figured out that they opened the gate no matter what name you gave them.
Eventually, Young was caught. Were the real Motown musicians angry about having their identities stolen? Not all of them. Cornelius Grant has said that he thinks "it's amazing that a guy using my name can get onto a private jet, and I'm the real guy and I can't get a dime."
Pretending to be a musician is a surprisingly successful con, as long as you pick a guy people know of but won't recognize. Lewis Morgan started out impersonating Eagles drummer Don Henley, but after being arrested, he switched to somebody even the fans wouldn't recognize: the bass player. He then spent ten lucrative years pretending to be former Eagles member Randy Meisner, racking up custom guitars and thousands of dollars' worth of other freebies in Vegas and California. People started showing up at the real Meisner's shows claiming to have met him (or to have been ripped off by him), even though he looked nothing like Morgan. Meisner's management used to spend hours on the phone assuring scam victims he wasn't the guy they were looking for. If the con man pretending to be your client gets more action than your actual client, it might be time to switch Randy Meisners.
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For more, check out 5 Badass Con Men Who Fooled The Experts There To Catch Them and The 5 Ballsiest Con Artists Of All Time.
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