Fraud scandals are fascinating by their very nature.
On one side you have the person or company pulling off the fraud with an impressive disregard for the long-term consequences of their actions – it’s all about their own (short-term) end game. On the other side, there’s the poor sap or group of saps who are unfortunately taken for a ride, losing their money, face or both who are just painful reminders that being scammed is a danger we all face, a fact which I find oddly comforting when the victims are billionaires and celebrities – yes, I am a hypocrite.
While we can collectively appreciate the ingenuity of the fraud while condemning its perpetrator, the victims will for the better part have to count their losses or at least be prepared for a long, hard road paved with legal fees and depressing outcomes, if they’re ever to have a chance of getting some of their money or respect back.
With the recent Wall Street and corporate scandals, you could be forgiven for assuming these frauds are a recent disease of our decadent modern times. The truth, however, is that fraud has been around since the dawn of Man.
15. The first billion dollar scam in recorded history
Long before the Nigerians came the Romans, who will forever prove the most remarkable of people. We’re mesmerized by their civilization precisely because we can find many parallels with our own, and the Romans were true pioneers in the art of the scam.
Around 193 AD, the emperor’s loyal group of soldiers known as the Pretorian Guard killed the reigning emperor and decided to auction the Empire to the highest bidder. Julianus stepped up, paying 250 gold pieces for every soldier in the process (roughly a $1 billion in total in present day valuation) before he was quickly deposed of as the soldiers had sold something that simply didn’t belong to them. Poor Julianus.
14. The first banking blunder
In 1494, the most powerful bank in the world failed and it as owned by the Medici family who has its own show on Netflix these days. It might shock you to find out that the largest, most influential bank in the world at the time ran large debts due to the family’s obscenely expensive lifestyle and poor management skills, failing after a 97-year rule.
The good news is that since then no other bank has ever been found to be gambling away its customers’ savings. Just kidding, the fall of the Medici bank started an unfortunate tradition that is as prevalent as ever in today’s society. Keep stuffing your savings under your mattress.
13. An 18th-century development scheme in the swamps of Louisiana?
Scottish economist John Law was a man determined to make it back in 1719. He managed to convince the French government to invest in shares for a development scheme in Louisiana, capitalizing on the fact no one had a clue what Louisiana actually looked like.
He hyped the commercial possibilities beyond the realms of reality, creating a huge demand for the venture’s shares. What came after? The more than expected speculative bubble grew to the point of collapse, and Law had to disguise himself as a beggar to survive the public outrage caused by his ‘Mississipi Scheme’ before dying nine years later in poverty.
12. The original Ponzi Scheme
Step aside you posers and wannabes, Charles Ponzi in da house! Urban lingo aside, you have to recognize merit where and when you see it and Ponzi’s scheme was so original in its simplicity it is still inspiring scammers and tricksters all over the world.
He tricked potential investors out of roughly $10 million in 1920, by purchasing postal coupons at a discount and selling them at full price while exaggerating the potential returns to entice investors. This worked for a while as he used the money from new investors to pay off the returns he promised to his old investors. Everyone fell for it until they didn’t. Ponzi fled the country and became Mussolini’s advisor. Well done?
11. Selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal
This fraud was brought to us by Victor Lustig, the man who literally wrote down the commandments which all con men of every age should follow. In 1925, he found out the Eiffel Tower was in dire need of some serious repair work and expeditiously proceeded to fake the required government papers which proved he had the right to sell the beloved monument for scrap metal.
He proceeded to find two buyers who rewarded him handsomely for his services in helping both of them secure the contract, in a grand total of $200,000 collected in bribes. He then went back to the US with a great story to tell where he continued his great career.
10. Ivar Kreuger, king of the roaring 20s
Ivar Kreuger had a pretty awesome life. He owned banks, film companies, newspapers, mines, telephone companies and railways so when he decided to form a monopoly to control all aspects of production and distribution of safety matches, every bank in the world wanted to get in on the action.
What they didn’t know is that his empire only existed on paper, as he moved money around his companies to keep the appearance of profitability. His scam barely survived the Great Depression but in 1932 he recognized it was the end of the line. He shot himself after having defrauded investors of a half a billion dollars.
9. Colonel who?
In 1839, a landowner by the name of Colonel Baker died, presumably leaving behind an estate which was valued in excess of $3 billion, as it comprised the area of present day Philadelphia. William Cameron Morrow Smith formed a legal association open to everyone who shared a surname with Colonel Baker with the express purpose of funding the legal battle to recover the assets the Colonel left behind.
Everyone had to pay a nominal fee to join the club but, the promised returns, if the legal proceedings were successful, made this fee seem negligible. Unfortunately, Colonel Baker was a product of fiction. Smith and his buddies managed to bring in nearly $25 million before the scheme was shut down by the authorities in 1936.
8. How can ZZZZ Best Cleaners be a fake company??
Young Wall Street superstar Barry Minkow was living the dream. He was the talk of the town in the financial world and even had a guest appearance on Oprah’s couch (before it got destroyed in a fit of enthusiasm by well-known maniac Tom Cruise). His industrial carpet-cleaning company ZZZZ Best burst onto the scene achieving a ridiculous $200 million valuation at its height.
In the end, ZZZZ Best turned out to be a front for an investment company engaged in – yes you’ve guessed it – a Ponzi Scheme. When it was exposed in 1987 the stock dropped to zero and our friend Barry was sentenced to 25 years of bending over for the soap. The remnants of ZZZZ Best’s empire, a couple of trucks and some cleaning equipment, were sold off for around $60,000.
7. Inspiration for a great film
The insider trading scam run by Ivan Boesky allowed him to go from deal to deal until he ended up with more than $200 million in his bank account – all a result of betting on corporate takeovers only a few days before the announcement of the acquisition. Does this sound familiar? Perhaps not, but we’ll get to it soon enough.
Like every rich guy caught in funny business before and after him, Boesky made a deal with the SEC meaning he only had to serve two years in prison along with a $100 million fine for his transgressions. This was merely a portion of the fortune he amassed with his frauds and scams so he pretty much got the last laugh, all the way to the bank. Plus he got a film made about his story (Wall Street) with Michael Douglas playing him – proof that crime pays off if done properly.
6. The Wright way to go out of business
A clever, conscious manipulator willing to capitalize on collective social awkwardness, London-born Whitaker Wright awarded several directorships to prominent lords and ladies of England’s high society in the businesses he owned. He knew this would mean they would end up investing in his companies without giving it much thought.
While this is a great way to capture investment, it proved unsuccessful in pretty much every other way as Wright had no idea how to run a company. He ended up shifting the money back and forth to keep the books balanced until his fraud was uncovered, causing a panic in London’s stock exchange. He was found guilty in 1904 and committed suicide before the police had a chance to lock him away.
5. The Reason We Have Government Regulation in Financial Institutions
Due to his shameless behaviour, Charles Keating became the face of a group of fraudsters operating under the guise of Savings and Loan institutions. These companies benefited from operating just like banks, apart from the fact they were completely unregulated and free to do as they pleased. And boy, did they please themselves.
The scam was pretty simple. Keating told his investors their money was being invested in top quality assets while it was actually being used to enrich greedy corporate oxygen wasters. His Lincoln Savings and Loan Association ‘mishap’ cost the US government over $3 billion and 23,000 customers with nothing but their thumb to suck on.
4. The poster-boys for greed
Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay (pictured) were the masterminds behind the fraud that was Enron. This company employed over twenty thousand people and claimed revenues of more than $100 billion a year before its collapse. Greed was heavily incentivized and Enron actively promoted a cutthroat environment where the bottom 10-15% at the end of each year got sacked.
In the auditing fail of the century, Enron’s financial situation revealed itself to be the product of fictitious accounting where mountains of debt had been hidden from investors and auditors alike. The largest corporate bankruptcy in American history at the time dragged the previously reputable accounting & auditing firm Arthur Andersen down in the process.
3. WorldCom record-breaking scandal
When WorldCom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 2002, it became the largest accounting fraud and corporate fail in US history (over $100 billion in assets), at least until the next entry in our list came along. The telecommunications behemoth immediately closed its doors after it fell prey to CEO Bernard Ebbers’ insatiable greed.
The company’s accounting practices were murky at best, with overly inflated revenues among other creative practices, and a small internal auditing team brought to light the $3.8 billion fraud. Ebbers is now serving 25 years in prison while the $6.1 billion lawsuit payout became the second largest since 1995.
2. Bernie Madoff’s $64.8 billion pyramid
As often is the case with worldwide financial disasters, the 2008 meltdown brought to light Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme for the fraudulent scam that it was. Several people in the industry have said they always knew his $18 billion fund was a scam, a fact which Madoff himself has confirmed. The truth is he did as he pleased until he got caught.
His only mistake? Instead of sticking to screwing working people out of their money like any sane financial institution would do, Bernie’s fund procured investment from some of the richest and most powerful wallets in the world. The result? Investment banks were being bailed left, right and centre from their criminal wrongdoings and their executives paying themselves ever-increasing bonuses with the bailout money they’d received, Bernie was the only one who landed in jail.
1. Lehman Brothers – the beginning of the end (which turned out be just another beginning)
When the global financial titan Lehman Brothers came crashing down in September 2008, the ensuing economic meltdown was no longer a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’, especially when one takes into account the collapse of Bear Sterns six months earlier. Both Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers were heavily invested in mortgage debt and its resulting securitization products.
When it filed for bankruptcy, Lehman Brothers was essentially a real estate hedge fund disguised as an investment bank. When the US government refused to extend a loan, Lehman’s bankruptcy brought on the biggest financial crisis in history. Regulations which had previously been put in place to prevent this had been rolled back. They were restored after the 2008 crisis revealed the promiscuity and criminal behaviour of large financial institutions but have since been shelved again.
Let’s see how that plays out.
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