Originally published: 29 January 2003
Man, people are gullible. Never ceases to amaze me. Or according to the legendary PT Barnum: "There's a sucker born every minute - you just happened to come along at the right time."
Today we're going to look at some Clever Cons, inspired by a news article I read this morning which detailed the exploits of a fellow who has been arrested for selling property - on the Moon.
An enterprising Dutchman called Rene Veenema has been charged with fraud after clients of his said they had bought plots of land on the Moon from him, but had never received their ownership certificates.
His firm - US-based Lunar Embassy - has reportedly been selling Moon plots at £1000 a pop since 1996, and claims to have sold plots to former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as well as folks like Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon and David Letterman.
The company made a fortune last year when Moon plots became all the rage as Valentine gifts in Romania - despite the fact that most of the buyers would never be able to afford to visit their properties - and Veenema has not even bothered to try and cover up his con.
"I have been pulling this off for more than 10 years," he told Dutch newspaper The Telegraaf. "My employers, my colleagues, my ex-girlfriend - I conned them all."
For his efforts he has a date with Bubba.
But I say: "Good on ya, mate."
If people want to throw their life earnings into purchasing the un-purchasable, then more power to you. How on Earth can anyone possibly believe that any single company on this planet has the right to sell off Moon property? What - Lunar Embassy owns the Moon? It's too ridiculous.
But people can sell you anything - the saying goes something like: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time", and I guess that's the principal con artists work with when applying their (extremely skilful) trade.
Perhaps the greatest con artist of them all was Czechoslovakian Victor Lustig, born to a middle class family in 1890. Lustig was involved in all sorts of petty scams on cruise liners going to and fro across the Atlantic, but his career really took off when he moved to the US in 1922.
Calling himself Count von Lustig, and claiming to be a dispossessed Austrian land baron wanting to start a new life in the Free World, Lustig persuaded a Missouri bank to sell him a dilapidated farm it didn't really want, saying he would pay for it in Liberty bonds.
He then asked them to forward him cash against the bonds to use as capital until the farm became productive, which the bank obligingly did. He got the cash and hit the trail at midnight, not bothering to conceal his tracks.
The bankers hired a private eye to track him and they dragged him from a New York apartment and stuck him on a train back to Missouri.
On the way, however, he convinced his captors that if the story came out there would be a run on the bank from panicked investors and the bank would crash.
He furthermore told them he wanted $1000 for the inconvenience they had cause him and he duly walked away free with a grand in his back pocket and apologies all round.
But the best was yet to come. In May 1925 Lustig travelled to Paris, and hearing that the Eiffel Tower was in a state of disrepair and that the government was considering pulling it down, he sent official letters to a bunch of iron scrap merchants, telling them he was from the government and asking them to meet in his hotel room to discuss a government contract.
After entertaining them he told them that the government was indeed scrapping the Eiffel Tower, and that he wanted to offer them the opportunity to make bids to get the contract for pulling it down.
Lustig was careful to tell them that as it was a very controversial decision they would need to keep quiet, or risk a public outcry.
Four days later all their bids were in and one André Poisson was chosen as the lucky "winner". Lustig told Poisson he'd won, but then went on to intimate how important it was for public servants like himself to entertain and live lavishly, but that they were paid such a pittance by the government.
Knowing a bribe when he saw one, Poisson peeled of some big ones from his bank roll in order to secure his bid, and the deal was sealed. Lustig had just sold someone the Eiffel Tower, a feat he was to repeat in later years. And he got an extra bribe into the bargain.
That's a man I need working for me.
Selling the Eiffel Tower was a spectacular feat, but I guess the Nigerian 419 scam is even more so. You've all received the emails:
STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL & URGENT.
I am Mr., M GROTE an Executive Accountant with the Department of finance of mineral resources and energy South Africa. First and foremost, I apologized using this medium to reach you for a transaction/business of this magnitude, but this is due to confidentiality and prompt access reposed on this medium.
Except it's from Nigerians, or Somalis, or Kenyans, or whatever.
What's amazing about this scam (which exhorts you to deposit vast sums of money into their bank accounts, promising that you will get it back with a fat stack of interest), is that if it wasn't working it wouldn't still be doing the rounds.
It is the most successful scam on the Internet to date, which means that thousands of people are sending thousands of wire transfers to unknown recipients in foreign lands today alone.
That's beyond gullibility - that's just plain stupid. Amazing, stupefying, mind-boggling. Incredible.
Which brings us back to the latest in a proud heritage of class conmen - Rene Veenema. He sold people moon plots. He made money selling moon plots. Bits of the Moon, which the last time I heard wasn't the property of the United States or anyone else for that matter.
You know what they say - where there's a willing buyer there's a willing seller. Veenema sure proved that one correct.
Crimes like Veenema's and Lustig's I applaud, since it's sheer class. What I can't tolerate, however, is the millions of frauds and cons that are perpetrated against everyday folks every day, which have nothing to do with gullibility but everything to do underhanded, oft-legal bullshit.
Things like the fact that my ISP reduces bandwidth on weekends, slowing my Internet access to a crawl; or dentists who screw your teeth up under the pretence of fixing them, in order to get you to come back in six months; or chemists who are in bed with prescription-mad doctors; or banks who squeeze you for every last drop of your money in whatever cunning little way they can; or petrol stations that supplement your petrol with water; or chocolate-makers who reduce the size of your favourite chocolate by at least five centimetres each season; or mechanics who place "break the drivetrain after six months so they'll come back" devices under your car when doing a routine check; or retailers who put up prices daily when they simply don't have to, and never reduce them again; or manufacturers of electrical goods whose products don't work out of the box 50% of the time, and their bitches the retailers who refuse to replace them - the list is absolutely endless.
And it's all legal. It's become very big business to screw the consumer. Moon plots I can handle but the insidious, ever-worsening state of legal con artistry is starting to wear me down.
Anyone want to buy Table Mountain? Special offer - today only.
All Smoked Out,