Hook, Line and Sinker:
Ten of the Most Audacious Swindles Ever
Fortunately, most victims suffer a greater dent to their pride than their bank balance. But some involve the loss of millions or even billions of pounds and cause real financial hardship. Here are ten of the most audacious financial swindles ever.
1. Dave Rhodes, whoever he or she may be, has a lot to answer for. His is the name at the top of the most famous chain letter in the world – which more often than not is sent by e-mail nowadays. The original letter titled "Make Money Fast" and signed by Rhodes began doing the rounds about 20 years ago. Who the original Dave Rhodes was, or if he even existed, has never been ascertained. ( A website reputed to be by the original Dave Rhodes is thought to be a hoax.)
Recipients are usually told to send money to the first name or names on a mailing list and then copy the letter to hundreds of other addresses. In return, they are promised huge profits for their small investment. "It is an undeniable law of the universe," goes one letter promising £40,000 in cash within the next 60 days, "that first we must give to receive. Do this with a big smile on your face because "as ye sew (sic), so shall ye reap." If you say so.
2. Canadians are usually thought of as law-abiding and frankly boring souls. But they were implicated in one of the nastiest swindles of recent years – the Canadian lottery scam. This involved organised criminals telephoning up unsuspecting Brits – often elderly people – claiming they had won a fortune on the Canadian lottery. To claim the prize you had to send money to cover processing fees. In some cases, victims lost more than £40,000.
Those targeted were often chosen because they appeared on "sucker lists" circulated among criminal gangs because they had fallen victim to similar cons in the past.
3. The notorious Women Empowering Women pyramid selling scheme made headline news in 2001 after it swept across the country and left people with heavy losses. The swindle claimed to have women's interests at heart. "Our main goal is the empowerment of women by providing for them the financial and emotional abilities to support themselves, their loved ones and the community", claimed the schemes' gushing mission statement.
The scheme encouraged women to sign up family and friends by promising that they would generate £24,000 for each person who invests a £3,000 stake. While a few profited, thousands lost their £3,000 'joining' fee. The scheme resurfaced in 2003, in a more exclusive mode, under the name Hearts, targeting well-heeled society figures including Lady Elizabeth Anson, the Queen's cousin, and celebrities such as Cilla Black.The government has since attempted to outlaw such scams, but driven by greed, it can only be a matter of time before it rears its ugly head again.
4. Have you ever received an unsolicited e-mail claiming to be from the family of a dead Nigerian dictator or someone high up in that country's civil service? They will almost certainly have desperately needed help getting the family's millions out of the country (their bank accounts have been frozen, you see). Did they ask you to provide them with money and supply your bank account details to help them transfer money out of the country? Then you've been targeted by the infamous Nigerian "419" scam. In return for your help they promise a handsome reward: in reality they empty your bank account.
These 419 scams have been so widespread that some enterprising individuals have started to fight back by scamming the scammers with some very funny results. Check out 419eater.com or thescambaiter.com
5. They say love is blind, which is perhaps why fraudsters are increasingly targeting victims through online dating services. It's the ideal time to catch you with your defences- and maybe even your pants - down. Malihu Ramu, a married Singaporean woman was sentenced to six months in jail earlier this year after conning a man in America out of $45,000 (£22,000) after she promised to marry him.
Ramu used a false name and photographs of Bollywood actress Gayatri Joshi on an online chat room to seduce her prey. Using all the arts of seduction, she asked for the money to cover her mother's funeral expenses and for a friend's wedding. It was only when she asked him for more cash that his suspicions were aroused and he called in the police. To find out more take a look at romancescam.com.
6. One of the most popular scams is the pyramid scheme, and in 1920 trickster Charles Ponzi gave his name to the granddaddy of them all – the Ponzi scam. Ponzi raked in millions of dollars from Americans who were taken in by his promise to double their money in 90 days by trading hoax postal coupons. About 40,000 people invested about $15m (£7m) all together – which is worth about $150m in today's money.
Returns were paid to the first investors out of the funds received from those who invested later – with Ponzi siphoning off a large chunk of the cash for himself. The simple arithmetic of the scheme meant that soon thousands and then millions of people were needed to keep passing money up through the pyramid chain. The scheme collapsed, Ponzi ended up in jail and the swindled investors got back only about a third of their funds, but it hasn't stopped it being replicated thousands of times since.
7. Millions of Albanians lost their life savings in what must the most damaging pyramid selling trick ever: it caused rioting in the streets, brought down the government and sparked a near civil war in this desperately poor Balkan state in south-west Europe. About two-thirds of the population of the former Communist dictatorship were duped by a series of these schemes in the 1990s, which initially received the support of the government.
Thousands sold their houses and farmers flogged their livestock to invest in them, entranced by the promise of huge riches- more than 100 per cent a year at the peak of the mania. The dream didn't last and the schemes crumbled leaving many Albanians penniless while thousands died in the ensuing violence.
8. Most con men are shady characters who try to keep a low profile, but they don't always hide from the public gaze. The Barlow Clowes affair is one of Britain's most notorious frauds. In the eighties, the firm attracted the savings of 18,000 private investors who believed they were putting their money into risk-free government bonds. In fact, hundreds of millions of pounds of this money was being diverted into the bank account of co-founder Peter Clowes, who spent the cash on private aircraft, cars, homes and a luxury yacht. Barlow Clowes collapsed in 1988 after the con was uncovered.
9. Some con-artists really know how to tug on the heartstrings. Eugene and Kathryn Stabe were charged with swindling $13,000 out of people in their home town of Huntington Indiana by claiming their daughter was dying of leukaemia. They said they wanted to fulfil as many of her dreams as possible before she passed away and used the generous donations to take the whole family to Disney World in Florida. The child was in fact in perfect health.
10. It only had to be a matter of time before financial scams made it into the virtual word. Earlier this year, Ginko Financial, a bank in the life simulation game Second Life tempted customers with the promise of unrealistically high returns of 40 per cent to 60 per cent. It quickly collapsed leaving some people nursing large real life losses. Then another bank, imaginatively called "The Bank" became embroiled in another scandal after it stopped processing customer withdrawals and its owner "Jasper Tizzy" and his staff – Paydayloan Lindman and Teanna Nomura - disappeared In Second Life players use "Linden dollars", which are converted into and out of real cash using a special exchange. Some residents lost 2.5m Linden dollars when the bank went bust – that's the equivalent of about £5,000.
Whether these were actual scams or business mistakes have yet to be ascertained. But with no official law and order in Second Life, one thing is guaranteed: investors can wave good bye to the money they have lost.