Last summer brought news that a trio of plucky, entrepreneurial Chechen girls swindled $3,300 out of ISIS by using social media to pretend they needed money to travel to the Middle East and join the jihad. They rooked ISIS out of $3,300 before they were caught by Chechen authorities.
In the mid-1700s, Barbara Erni from the tiny European fiefdom of Liechtenstein ran an amazing scam where she’d travel from one boarding house to another carrying a heavy trunk. She’d inform the innkeepers that the trunk contained a huge treasure and needed to be locked away wherever the in kept its own valuables. But during the night, a dwarf accomplice of hers would emerge from the trunk and pack it with every valuable item in sight, and they’d flee the inn before sunrise. This worked for years until she was finally caught and beheaded in front of a crowd of 1,000 gawkers.
In the 1800s, Sarah Rachel Russell—AKA “Madame Rachel”—made herself a fortune by exploiting the vanity of rich British women by selling them absolutely useless potions that she’d dub Magnetic Rock Dew Water, Armenian Beauty Wash, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus Soak. Some of her concoctions included dangerous and deadly substances such as lead, arsenic, and prussic acid. For years, she raked in the modern equivalent of $1 million yearly merely by selling women fake beauty treatments.
Kari Ferrell gained brief fame in 2009 when the press christened her the “Hipster Grifter” for her tendency to befriend young skinny bearded males in Williamsburg and take them for every penny they had. She was accused of faking cancer, being a prostitute, and passing hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad checks. Her scheme finally caught up with her, though, and she spent jail time in Utah for allegedly passing over $60,000 in bad checks.
One of the rarest criminal combos is that of a mother and son who kill people together, but that’s exactly what Sante Kimes and her son Kenny did. Sante was a lifelong con artist who grew up shoplifting and committing credit card fraud before she went “pro” and began fleecing people of millions and murdering anyone whose belongings she desired. Along with her son, she murdered Manhattan socialite Irene Silverman, wrapped her in trash bags, stuffed her in a duffel bag, and dropped the corpse in a New Jersey dumpster. She and her son were found guilty of murder and a whopping 117 other criminal charges.
While campaigning in 1976, future president Ronald Reagan spoke of a Chicago “welfare queen”:
She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.
Not only was all of this true, the “Welfare Queen” in question, Linda Taylor, was also running multiple other scams. She operated in 14 states using at least 127 aliases. When finally caught for fraud, she shocked the media by appearing nonchalant and dressed in the highest fashion.
Born a poor orphan in Stockholm, Helga de la Brache lied her way to fame and fortune by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Sweden’s exiled King Gustav IV. The Swedish government believed her, and she lived on a lavish monthly pension for years until finally being caught.
A psychological master from the 1800s who could allegedly bend anyone to her will, Bertha Hayman was described by a New York detective as “one of the smartest confidence women in America.” Even after being caught and arrested, she swindled people out of hundreds even from jail. She acted as sort of a Robin Hood figure and apparently gave all of her illicitly acquired treasures to the poor. According to her, she only did it for the joy of the hustle:
The moment I discover a man’s a fool I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned.’ It ministers to my intellectual pride.
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest of the late 19th century’s robber barons. Capitalizing on this capitalist, a woman named Cassie Chadwick claimed to be his illegitimate daughter and was able to work (and even bankrupt) several banks out of an estimated $10-20 million, which is nearly a billion in today’s dollars. Andrew Carnegie was finally contacted about the swindling seductress and claimed that not only wasn’t she his daughter, he’d never even met her. She died in jail.
During the mid to late 1800s, the Fox sisters—Leah, Margaret, and Kate—helped found the Spiritualism movement by holding public séances where audience questions were answered by a series of mysterious “rapping” sounds. After forty years of running this scam, one of the Fox sisters finally sold out their secret—it was actually achieved by cracking the bones in their knuckles and toes.
In the 1980s, Brooklyn-born Dina Wein Reis made millions by defrauding Fortune 500 companies of their merchandise by posing as the conduit of a “National Distribution Program.” This “program” consisted of Reis begging corporations for free merchandise in order to set up a business relationship, then selling it for a pure profit behind their backs. The same worked for a decade until she was finally nabbed.
An alleged “expert at emotional manipulation,” a British woman named Patricia Wutaan earned untold thousands in unearned money by providing ready-made “scripts” for women to use on gullible men they’d met through dating sites. One of these fake letters read like this:
I am a widow. Lost my husband to 9/11 terror attacks in New York. He made it out of the collapsed building but he later died because of heavy dust and smoke and he was asthmatic
Wutaan counseled her would-be female scammers:
Let him do most of the talking, be sad and worried about taking care of bills for rest of the month. When he asks what he can do to help ask him for $2000 – $3000.
She also counseled the women to “stay calm and moody until you get his final word.”
Jody Harris was able to take her innocent looks and bubbly personality and used it to bleed trusting women of their life’s savings while she conned one policeman after the next into falling in love with her. She would often appear in public in lavish automobiles while “dripping in jewelry.” When she was finally caught, police found more than 100 pieces of fake ID, countless wigs, a diamond watch, and a pearl necklace. Her victim count totaled over 30, and she defrauded them of an estimated $175,000.
In the early 1800s, a poor British homeless woman worked a scam where she suddenly showed up wearing exotic clothing and spouting gibberish. A male accomplice pretended he could decipher her babbling and told onlookers that she was actually “Princess Caraboo” from a small island in the Indian Ocean. Pirates had captured her, but she bravely dove into the ocean and swam ashore. For months she exploited the kindness and gullibility of the British by posing as Princess Caraboo, becoming a media star. But once her ruse was discovered, she returned to poverty and died selling leeches.