Showman and carnival barker P.T Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” We hate to say it, but knowing the scams some people fall for, he might just be right! American history is replete with tales of slick schemers cooking up new ways to part saps with their money. Fraudsters have a million different hustles: Nigerian email scams, pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes, and shell games. But real estate fraud is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Here are some cons that turned it into an art form.
George C. Parker and the Brooklyn Bridge
Have you ever heard someone say,”If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you”? Well, that phrase actually comes from a real guy. In 1883, when he was only in his early 20’s, George C. Parker started his career as a con man in New York City. The Brooklyn Bridge had just been built; a proud testament to the engineering capabilities of that time. Ironically, Parker also made it a symbol for the gullibility and naivete of the people of that time. I mean, Parker really didn’t have to put in a lot of effort into the trick. He literally just slapped a legitimate looking “For Sale” sign onto the bridge, and then he waited until he found his “sucker.” Then, he would approach his chosen victim and tell him that he owned the bridge and he was looking to sell. He would usually pick newly arrived, uneducated immigrants, and he would entice them with the prospect of steady tolls to cross the bridge. The police had their hands full shutting down all the toll booths that Parker’s victims erected! Crazy thing is, he sold the Brooklyn Bridge not one time, but, according to him, multiple times per week! It seems like you could get away with just about anything back then! It’s shocking that he was able to keep up the ruse and fool so many people with this hoax. And it gets crazier; he also “sold” Madison Square Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even the Tomb of Ulysses S. Grant! Parker fleeced hundreds upon hundreds of unsuspecting people, tricking them into thinking they were getting a steal on various landmarks. He kept the hustle up for 30 years before he was finally arrested! He served 8 years of his life sentence before dying in prison. He was a master manipulator if there ever was one.
The Baker Estate Swindle
This story may not have permeated the public lexicon and memory like the Brooklyn Bridge case did, but its effect is more far reaching. The Baker Hoax was a real estate fraud much larger than just a bridge; this was a daring con for almost an entire city! This is how CBS News tells it:
“In 1839, one Colonel Jacob Baker died, leaving an estate that comprised most of the land where the city of Philadelphia is located, a tract worth up to $3 billion. Under the leadership of William Cameron Morrow Smith , Baker’s heirs formed a legal association, open for a small fee to anybody with the last name “Baker”, to pool their resources for the legal battle to recover their share of their rightful inheritance. There was only one problem; Colonel Baker was a fictional creation and there was no inheritance. Smith and his cronies collected nearly $25 million before the swindle was shut down in 1936.”
So essentially, this fraudster named Cameron Smith put out ads in the newspaper promising a share of 1,500 acres of downtown Philadelphia, and he was able to make a career out of collecting false legal fees from his victims without ever getting caught. He was living the life. I mean, $25 million in the 1800’s was a whole lot of money. The scope of this one really boggles the mind, because fraudsters continued to cash in on Smith’s con well into the 20th century, after the hoax had been thoroughly debunked. It’s shocking that it took almost 70 years for the feds to get wind of the fraud and shut it down, but the hoax really had that long of a lifespan. Hundreds of Bakers over decades were fooled into believing the story, despite the fact that the “Government had proven that every strip of land in Philadelphia mentioned by the “heirs” had a clear title dating back to the days of William Penn.” (Pittsburgh Press) Can you believe that many people paid into the scam? I’m just glad we have better fraud protection these days.
The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower– Twice!
Paris, France. 1925. Coming out of a World War, the city is teeming and humming with economic activity. It’s the perfect environment for an expert con artist like Victor Lustig to thrive.
Lustig pulled off many cons, but this is the one that brought him infamy: word around Paris was that the Eiffel Tower was falling into disrepair. Lustig saw an opportunity.
He invited six scrap metal dealers to a meeting at a Paris hotel, and he presented himself as being from the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He told the dealers that the city government couldn’t afford the upkeep of the Tower anymore, and that they would sell the scrap to the highest bidder.
So one of the scrap dealers, Andre Poisson, finally agreed to pony up the cash for the tower. His wife protested, but the entrepreneur put his trust in the con man. Lustig was already on a train halfway to Vienna before Poisson realized the humiliating mistake he’d made! But he wasn’t about to go to the police. He was embarrassed that he didn’t tell a soul about the fraud, and Lustig never saw charges.
You’d think Lustig would just count his lucky stars that he didn’t get caught and cash in his chips while he was still ahead. But that’s not how Victor rolled. Just a month later Lustig snuck back to Paris to pull off the exact. Same. Stunt. At least he tried to, but this time his victim went to the authorities. Nevertheless, the wily con-man avoided capture and snuck right back out of France. That slick little trickster almost sold the Eiffel tower to two different people! I guess people just want to believe they can get rich quick, and who can blame them? But let this just be a lesson; if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.