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10 of the Most Audacious Scams of All Time

Audacious scams

Receiving scam emails and ignoring them is pretty regular for us. However, this was not a common tradition everywhere since many big and small scandals have been successful over time. The reality was different back then. The con artists were unbelievably audacious and the victims gullible beyond all conceptualization. From selling golf balls as bomb detectors to actually selling the Brooklyn Bridge, here is the list of 10 of the most audacious scams of all time.

1. James McCormick sold fake “bomb detectors” named “ADE 652” mostly in Iraq but also in other parts of the world. He purchased novelty golf ball detectors for less than $20 and resold them for $5,000 each. 

James McCormick
Image credit: National via mirror.co.uk

McCormick sold more than 7,000 fake bomb detectors and made more than $70 million from the total sales. 

The fake devices were sold to various people, and it gave the buyers a false sense of security. Even numerous soldiers, police, border guards, and hotel security staff believed it to be working. The devices were sold to the governments of multiple countries including Georgia, Romania, Niger, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. 

The fraudster claimed that the device is capable of detecting drugs and explosives as well. 

It is said that the usage of the fake device, in some cases, played a part in deaths and injuring people. 

Even when the entire scam was exposed, McCormick had no sense of guilt whatsoever, and shamelessly said that his customers never complained about the product. 

McCormick was 57 when he was caught and imprisoned for 10 years. (source)

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2. A wellness blogger, Belle Gibson, faked brain cancer and claimed that her cancer was cured with nutrition and alternative therapies. She made $420,000 by building a social media following and released The Whole Pantry cookbook and app that she asserted would cure the disease. 

Belle Gibson
Image credit: Australian Women’s Weekly via Washingtonpost, healing_belle/Instagram via dailymail

Belle Gibson marketed herself as someone who has cured brain cancer with the help of Ayurveda medicine, oxygen therapy, gluten, and a sugar-free diet. 

She especially targeted young girls, asylum seekers, sick children, and evoked sympathy in them for herself by narrating her fake story. 

She promised to donate the majority of the revenue she generated selling her cookbook, but in reality, she indiscriminately spent $91,000 in two years between 2017 and 2019 just on her clothes, cosmetics, and holidays. She only donated $10,000 to the charity. 

When Mrs. Gibson was caught, she admitted that the entire diagnosis was made up. For misleading conduct, she was fined $410,000 and the total charges sum up to $500,000 including all fines, penalties, and interest. (1, 2, 3)

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3. In the infamous “Nigerian Prince” scam, the con artists intentionally sent grammatically poor emails and type filters to automatically select the most gullible recipients. The fraudsters generally posed as wealthy individuals who needed to safeguard their money and thus needed your assistance. The criminals asked the victims to give the bank details to transfer their money and promised to later give a share from their massive wealth. Obviously, they only zeroed out the victims’ bank balance.

Wrong Emails
Scam letters. Image credit: Helen Online via Wikimedia

The scam also has a different name, and that is the “419  Scam” based on the section of Nigeria’s criminal code that deals with fraud. 

The scammers usually pretend to be a government official or a business tycoon that desperately needs your assistance to keep their money safe with a promise that some of their millions will be later yours. 

The scams have been experienced by people all around the globe, and these scammers select their identity based on the details of their victims, such as a US soldier for Middle Eastern countries. 

The scammers are not essentially from Nigeria. As of 2006, 61% of them were US citizens and only 6% were Nigerians. 

This category of fraud or a confidence trick flourished on the Internet, but its roots can be traced back to a 19th-century swindle called the “Spanish Prisoner.” (1, 2, 3)

4. Nikita Russian, a British man, duped people into believing that he was producing a reality show which, in reality, didn’t exist. In fact, 30 potential selected contestants were promised instant fame and a cash prize of $150,000 to the winner. Some of them sold their homes, left their partners, and even resigned from their jobs only to take part in a non-existent show.

In 2002, Russian started with placing advertisements in popular publications inviting people to take part in a year-long reality show with a chance of winning unbelievable cash prizes. 

After auditioning hundreds of people that applied for the show in London, he selected 30 of them and asked them to quit their jobs, leave their homes, and prepare for the one-year show. He asked them all to meet in London where he’ll divide them into teams of 10 and further tasks will be given.

The teams were asked to raise $1.5 million which was basically their own cash prize, and he offered them no compensation for living. Moreover, he demanded complete access to the participants’ bank accounts.

Most of the selected contestants left the show within a couple of days. Russian also became homeless and was forced to live with his manipulated victims. 

Russian went into hiding and was unable to be contacted. He was, nonetheless, tracked down by one of his contestants in Richmond upon Thames and was forced to apologize on screen.

Since he demanded no money, he was not charged with any crime, and no civilian case was filed because of lack of funds. (1, 2)

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5. In 1872, two Kentucky men swindled powerful businessmen by insisting that they had found undeveloped land which held precious jewels. The swindlers actually placed the jewels and asked for investors’ money by promising to establish a company. They asked the businessmen to give millions of dollars in exchange for revealing the secret diamond place. After getting the shares of businessmen, they just flew away.

Great Diamond Haux
Clarence King (far right) – who later became head of the U.S. Geological Survey – and his men helped foil one of the boldest prospecting hoaxes in history. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library via earthmagazine

Philip Arnold and his cousin John Slack in 1870 approached businessmen with mysterious bags. They acted like there was something secretive in the bag, which they would reveal later – uncut diamonds. After revealing the precious diamonds, they used them to make a deal that they would reveal the location of the place where they found these diamonds in exchange for $100,000.

The first victim that the pair lured into their hoax was the founder of the Bank of California, William Ralston – and then the list went on.

They purchased the uncut diamonds from London for about $20,000, and the first thing they did after returning to San Francisco was to spread those diamonds on the land they decided to use as the secret place. 

The pair then offered investors a look at the site where they had found the diamonds. After discovering the already planted jewels, the investor immediately started breaking down their company into shares and gave it to the swindler pair. 

After that, Arnold and Slack just flowed along with the apparently discovered diamonds and also cashed the shares out. 

Slack was last seen in New Mexico and was reported dead in 1896.

Arnold bought a luxurious house in Kentucky and opened his own bank but was eventually arrested in a gunfight. He died shortly after of pneumonia. (1, 2)

Also read: 10 of the Biggest Scams Ever in History

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