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.

First, we recommend you check out the most popular articles from our other sites during the past week:

It’s Raining Coupons! A new site for coupons that’s sure to save you money while shopping online using coupons, discounts, coupon codes and promotions.

The Lowdown on Video Games Consoles: Get the good and the bad on the main three video game consoles: the Nintendo Wii, the Xbox 360, and the Playstation 3.

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, 10 Celebrity Scam Tricks That Lurk Behind the Names of the Rich and Famous, in which 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 scam?

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, 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 tank.)

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.