The Top 10 Conmen of All Time

Since the dawn of time, people have craved instant riches. Some of the more devious of their fellow citizens have exploited that human desire and forged their own path to a fortune.

Here we look at the leading exponents of the art of taking advantage of people’s primeval urge to get something for virtually nothing.

The simple rule to learn from this is that if something sounds to good to be true… it almost certainly is.

10. Ali Dia

In 1996 the manager of English Premier League club Southampton, Graeme Souness, took an intriguing phone call. The person on the other end claimed to be George Weah, a former World Player of the Year.

“Weah” convinced Souness to sign his cousin, Ali Dia, by claiming he’d played for Paris St Germain and won 13 caps for Senegal.

Souness gave Dia a one-month deal and he even played in the EPL, coming on as a substitute for Matt Le Tissier only to be replaced 50 minutes later.

“He ran around like Bambi on ice,” said Le Tissier. “It was very embarrassing to watch.”

It later emerged that “Weah” had in fact been a student friend of Dia, who never played for Southampton again and soon left the club.

9. Jordan Belfort

Jordan Belfort
Image: ‘Jordan Belfort’ is licensed under Wikimedia Commons

The man immortalized by Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street and played on screen by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Belfort ran stock market manipulation, money laundering scams and security fraud on a massive scale.

When the authorities caught up with him in 1999, he spent just 22 months in prison after testifying against several partners and subordinates.

Belfort now runs seminars focusing on sales skills and entrepreneurship. He also delivers motivational speeches. You have to wonder if they are anything like the speeches DiCaprio makes in the movie…

8. Eduardo de Valfierno

A man shrouded in mystery. There is no proof he even existed. But if he did, he is the man who masterminded the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911.

He persuaded an employee of the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia, to walk out of the Paris gallery with Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece under his coat.

Mona Lisa
Image: from MaxPixel

Meanwhile, Valfierno enlisted a forger to make six copies of the priceless work and sold them to six buyers, each of whom thought they were getting the original.

He never contacted Peruggia. For the purposes of the scam, all that mattered was that the Mona Lisa was missing. Peruggia was caught trying to sell the painting and it was returned to the Louvre in 1913.

The intrigue persists to this day. In more than a century, none of the forgeries has ever been located.

7. Joseph Weil

Joseph Weil
Image: via Alchetron

A tireless conman who was born in Chicago in 1875. It is said that he sold a chicken to a passing prospector for the price of a golden nugget. That, according to legend, is where we get the phrase “chicken nugget”. Hmm…

Weil made $8million, an enormous sum at the time, from a variety of cons.

He fixed horse races, staged fake prize fights, sold “talking” dogs and sold oil-rich land he didn’t even own. He even conned Italian dictator Benito Mussolini out of $2m.

“The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me,” Weil said with disarming frankness. He spent just six years in jail.

6. Frank Abagnale Jr

Frank Abagnale
Image: ‘Frank W. Abagnale’ is licensed under Wikipedia

Another appearance in our list for Leonardo DiCaprio, who played this famous serial imposter in the film Catch Me If You Can.

Between the ages of 15 and 21, Abagnale assumed at least eight fake identities including a pilot, a lawyer and a doctor. He specialized in forging checks.

To add to his legend, Abagnale escaped from police custody twice, once from a taxi-ing airplane.

He served less than five years in prison before accepting work with the US government. He is now a consultant and lecturer for the FBI.

5. “Soapy” Smith

Soapy Smith
Image: ‘Soapy Smith’ is licensed under Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, born in 1860, got his nickname because of the devastatingly simple but incredibly effective prize soap racket he ran.

Smith would set up on a street corner with a big pile of soap cakes. He would wrap banknotes, from $1 up to $100, around some of the soap and then wrap all the cakes in plain brown paper.

That’s when he would invite the crowd to buy a soap cake for a dollar, giving them a chance to win big money.

Of course, through sleight of hand Smith would hide the cakes with $100 wrapped around them. But when a plant in the crowd would shout that he had won, people would flock to buy more.

Smith also ran organized crime in Colorado and Alaska and died in the Shootout on Juneau Wharf in 1898, aged only 37.

4. George Parker

Born in New York to Irish parents in 1860, Parker’s specialty was selling off the city’s famous landmarks to gullible foreigners.

The Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, was a particular favorite sales item for Parker. He would tell his victims they would control access to the bridge; police had to remove several people who tried to erect toll booths.

Parker added to his plausibility by setting up a fake office and producing convincing documents that showed he was the rightful owner.

He also sold Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Statue of Liberty. When the authorities caught up with him, he spent his last eight years in Sing Sing.

3. Charles Ponzi

Image: ‘Ponzi’ is licensed under Wikimedia Commons

So notorious he gave his name to a type of scheme that still goes on today.

Ponzi had a string of undistinguished jobs and businesses before hitting on the scheme that earned him such notoriety.

He promised investors a return of 50 per cent interest in 90 days. He was smooth and persuasive and had an unerring understanding of human psychology.

Ultimately 40,000 people joined his scheme. In 1920 he raked in $15million in eight months with his secret to easy wealth.

But he wasn’t investing the money. He took new investors’ money and used it to pay the old investors. Such a scheme, also known as a pyramid scheme, works until the supply of new investors dries up.

Inevitably, the house of cards came crashing down and he went to prison. But not before giving his name to a particular type of con.

2. Bernie Madoff

Bernard Madoff
Image: ‘Bernard Madoff’ is licensed under Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Madoff epitomized probity and respectability. He ran Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities and was a non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ. On the face of it, he was Wall Street royalty.

But it was all a con. He was running the biggest Ponzi scheme ever, and the largest financial fraud in US history. It was valued at an eye-watering $64.8BILLION.

In 2008, as the edifice came crashing down, he confessed that the asset management unit of his company was “one big lie”. He had begun the Ponzi scheme in the early 1990s; some authorities believe it could have been going on since the 1970s.

Madoff’s reward for the biggest fraud in America was one of the longest jail sentences – 150 years.

1. Victor Lustig

Victor Lustig
Image: ‘Victor Lustig’ is licensed under Wikimedia Commons

And so to the man who deserves the title of the biggest conman ever. We’ll call him Victor Lustig – but nobody knows his real name.

Probably born in 1890 in Austria-Hungary – though no records exist – he was clever and charismatic. One Secret Service agent said he was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke as charming as a young girl’s dream”.

He started out as a pickpocket, burglar, street hustler and card sharp. He conned wealthy passengers on trans-Atlantic liners. He faked horse race ownership schemes and real-estate investments.

This is the man who sold the Eiffel Tower, twice, to groups of Paris businessmen.

Eventually he had 47 aliases and dozens of fake passports. He was captured in 1935 after a massive counterfeit banknote operation that threatened the stability of the American economy.

He escaped from the Federal Detention Center in Manhattan by shinning down a rope made of bedsheets. When recaptured, he was sentenced to 20 years and sent to Alcatraz. He died in a secure medical facility in Missouri in 1947.


If you enjoyed reading this, you might like our post on the top 10 gamblers in jail or the most surprising gamblers who got caught stealing money.