5 Memorable Long Reads About Grifters and Con Men

Fraud is not a new phenomenon. But we might be living in its golden age.

Jordan Belfort
Jordan Belfort, the "Wolf of Wall St." (David Howells/ Corbis via Getty)
Corbis via Getty Images

Grifters have long existed in every corner society, from the dude peddling fake Rolex watches on the street to those at the top of corporate Ponzi schemes, robbing millions from Peter to pay Paul (and themselves). But the media has taken a special interest in scammers in recent years, with Netflix documentaries and magazine covers elevating their stories to the level of celebrity. Below, find five of our favorite long reads about brazen trickery on a grand and arrogant scale.

Peter Max
Artist Peter Max attends Gotham Magazine Celebrates its Summer Issue. (Ben Gabbe/ Getty via Gotham)
Ben Gabbe

German-American artist Peter Max was known for painting bright, colorful works that were most closely associated with the psychedelic pop art of the 1960s. But when Max fell victim to the effects of dementia and stopped painting, his art, somehow did not. That’s because, as The New York Times detailed it, his “associates” were recruiting painters “some of them… off the street and paid minimum wage” to churn out the Max aesthetic. Max, unable to understand where or even who he was, was caught in an elder abuse scam that had him signing paintings he didn’t make.

Billy McFarland
Billy McFarland chaired the Fyre Festival. (Patrick McMullan/ Getty)
Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

You know the basic story of the infamous Fyre Festival: the ill-fated party of the century conceived of by then 25-year-old Billy McFarland — who’s now serving time in an Upstate New York prison — that hooked both millennials and investors alike on an “ultra-luxurious ‘Coachella in the Bahamas.’” But the fiasco that took place instead left people with cheese sandwiches for dinner and their luggage dumped in piles next to FEMA tents, and that’s just the beginning of what Vanity Fair uncovered in what it called the “biggest scam of the year.”

Charles Ponzi
Mug shots of Charles Ponzi. (Getty)
Bettmann Archive

Bernie Madoff, Lou Pearlman, Pastor Gerald Payne — these are the reference points that come to mind every time a new Ponzi scheme surfaces. But who knows much about the man behind the moniker, Charles Ponzi? The Italian immigrant, a “dapper, five-foot-two-inch rogue who in 1920 raked in an estimated $15 million in eight months by persuading tens of thousands of Bostonians that he had unlocked the secret to easy wealth.” His “meteoric success” with swindling people out of their money was so mind-blowing, according to Smithsonian Magazine, that his name became forever attached to his specific swindling method.

Jordan Belfort
Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall St.” (David Howells/ Corbis via Getty)
Corbis via Getty Images

In an almost uncomfortably candid interview, Jordan Belfort got real with New York magazine right before the release of The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013. He still can’t sleep, he told the mag, nearly a decade after serving 22 months inn federal prison for fraud, money laundering and scamming people out of $100 million. You may have seen the movie; this is everything Scorsese left out.

Han van Meegeren
A visitor looks at paintings by Han van Meegeren in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. (Robin Utrecht/ AFP/ Getty)
AFP/Getty Images

Han van Meegeren was described by The New Yorker in a piece title “Dutch Master,” as “the boldest modern forger of Old Masters (as far as we know).” The work of those “masters” (think Johannes Vermeer) line the walls of every major museum in the world — and for awhile, van Meegeren’s fakes did, too. Since his death in 1947, van Meegeren is synonymous with investigations into art fraud for being “the most original of fakers.”

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