Famous Victims Scammed — Just Like the Rest of Us

Stories about famous victims who are scammed demonstrate that we’re all targets of con-tricks and hoaxes, and we’re all equally vulnerable — or gullible: Internet Scambusters #364

Famous victims of scams are living proof (well, OK, sometimes
not living) that just about anyone can be fooled into parting
with their money if the story is convincing enough.

Same goes for hoaxes and spoofs. They’re just as likely to
fool well-known personalities as they are to convince you or us.

In this issue, we have a different take on celebrity scams,
looking at the top-name victims rather than just those who try
to pass themselves off as the rich and famous — though some
scams actually seem to work both ways!

We thought you’d enjoy a lighter issue filled with stories
about famous people who are scammed — and you’ll find that
you can learn from their stories.

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On to today’s main topic…

Famous Victims Scammed — Just Like the Rest of Us

If you’ve ever been conned and can’t believe how you fell for
it, take comfort from knowing you’re in good company — over
the years scammers have claimed many famous victims too.

Following our recent issue covering celebrity scams, href="http://www.scambusters.org/celebrityscam.html">10 Celebrity
Scam Tricks That Lurk Behind the Names of the Rich and Famous, in
the names of the famous have been used to con others, this
issue we’re taking a look from a different angle — where
well-known people have actually been the famous victims of
scams and hoaxes.

In recent memory, you only have to think back to the notorious
Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernie Madoff to see that when it
comes to misfortune, scamming crosses all boundaries of money,
background, knowledge and good connections.

Celebrities that included politicians, sports stars, TV
personalities and movie directors reputedly were among
Madoff’s victims, most of whom missed that basic blaring
signal of a phony investment deal that we’re always warning
about: if the promised returns seem way above the rates
available elsewhere, then, at the very least, it’s highly
risky, but more likely it’s a scam.

And it’s not just bogus investment schemes that sucker-punch
the rich, famous or people you’d think should know better either.

Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that we learned that the head
of the FBI narrowly avoided becoming the victim of a phishing

After getting an email that seemed to come from his bank, he
began to follow the instructions to key in his personal
information. Almost at the last moment, he thought better of
the idea and checked it out, only to discover it was a scam.

Reportedly, he got close enough to being scammed that his wife
supposedly banned him from doing any more Internet banking!

Actors as Famous Scam Victims

And he’s in good company. Tim Berners-Lee, who has been dubbed
inventor of the Worldwide Web, recently fessed up to buying
gifts online from a fake company. He actually handed over his
money — and got nothing in return.

Read more about the risks of phony online retailers in our
recent 2009 holiday scams issue, href="http://www.scambusters.org/holidayscams3.html">How to Spot a
Holiday Scam — and Find Genuine Bargains.

Then, earlier this year, actor Robert De Niro became another
famous victim of a scam when a crooked art dealer allegedly
sold paintings by De Niro’s late father without the actor’s
permission and pocketed most of the money.

The same crook also allegedly duped former tennis ace John
McEnroe and Bank of America, this time as would-be investors
or buyers, before being indicted for an art investment scam
said to have netted $88 million.

Political Famous Victims

The world of politics has its own clutch of famous victims of
scams too.

For instance, a teenager who seemed to be acting out a
multi-person role like Frank Abagnale Jr. in the movie “Catch
Me If You Can” is reported to have swindled a former president
of Taiwan by posing as a fortune teller and offering to
perform a Buddhist ritual for money.

(He was sentenced to life in jail — not for this but for
numerous corruption charges.)

And, staying with that theme, a medicine woman recently
tricked Zimbabwean government ministers out of $1m by
convincing them she could tap diesel fuel from a rock!

(The real source was a hidden pipe connected to a nearby fuel

Dual Scams

Sometimes, celebrity scams work both ways — the scammer
pretending to be someone well-known or being well-connected
enough to fool genuinely famous victims.

A good example was the famous Frenchman Christopher Rocancourt
who, among other tricks, fooled celebrities and other powerful
people into believing he was a member of the Rockefeller family.

According to Rocancourt’s Wikipedia entry, he used at least a
dozen aliases to lure rich and powerful people into investing
in his schemes.

His act apparently was good enough to convince a Playboy model
to marry him, to share a home for a time with Mickey Rourke
and to get Jean-Claude Van Damme to agree to produce a movie
with him.

And, while we’re in Hollywood mode, perhaps one of the most
famous victims of a scam was the reclusive billionaire tycoon
Howard Hughes, whose autobiography was faked by author Clifford
Irving and became the subject of a movie, “The Hoax.”

Hughes sued the publisher of the book, prompting Irving to
admit the trick out of which, remarkably, he has built
celebrity status for himself, as well as becoming a successful
author in his own right.

Not Just a Recent Phenomenon

And famous victims are not merely a recent part of the story
of scams. You can trace them back across the centuries too.

In the 18th century, for example, well-known celebrities of
their day, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin,
were tricked into playing against what was purported to be the
world’s first chess-playing machine. They lost.

In reality, a chess grand master was cunningly concealed in a
cabinet beneath the board, manipulating the pieces into what
looked like automated moves.

And finally, if famous individuals can become scam and hoax
victims, how about taking in a whole state?

That’s the suggestion in one theory about how the state of
Idaho got its name. According to the story, the name was
suggested by an eccentric character, George Willing, who was a
key figure in the territory’s early pioneer settlement.

He said it was a Shoshone term meaning “gem of the mountains”
but later claimed he just made up the name. Dismayed, the
settlers renamed their territory Colorado, but eventually
reverted to Willing’s suggestion.

Of course, there are those who say this story isn’t true. But
that’s the essence of a scam or a hoax, isn’t it? — finding
others who’ll believe what you say.

And as we’ve just shown, that goes even for famous victims!

Time to close — we’re off to take a walk. See you next week.