Thirteen Notorious American Fraudsters

Recent high-profile cases revealing corruption from one-time wunderkinds Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried got us wondering about the history of fraudsters in the US. So we've put together a list of some of the more notorious—and in many cases, fascinating—stories of fraud in America. Don't get any ideas.

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Charles Ponzi

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

He wasn’t the first to rob Peter to pay Paul, but for whatever reason, his name stuck: Charles Ponzi, the namesake of the infamous pyramid scheme. This classic form of fraud involves using new investments to pay back earlier investors, where funds invariably dry up and expose the plot. Read more about Ponzi’s original scheme here.

Bernie Madoff

Photo credit: Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images

That brings us to the architect of the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme: Bernie Madoff, the one-time Wall Street guru and chair of the Nasdaq index. The financier was sentenced in 2009 to 150 years in jail for defrauding thousands of investors out of an estimated $18B. His story has received even more attention in light of a new Netflix documentary dubbed “The Monster of Wall Street.” Read more here.

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Farid Fata

Photo credit: Detroit News

We’re not saying you shouldn’t trust your doctor—they’re probably fine. Just be glad you weren’t looking for an oncologist in Michigan in the early 2010s, where Dr. Farid Fata prescribed chemotherapy to hundreds of patients who didn’t need it—all to collect insurance payouts. He was, thankfully, caught in 2013 and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Read more here.

Peter Popoff

Photo credit: GQ

He was a massive television personality in the ’80s, hosting healing services and soliciting donations to (ostensibly) send Bibles to folks behind the Iron Curtain via helium-balloons. But one intrepid magician brought a radio scanner to one of Popoff’s conferences and heard Popoff’s wife feeding the charismatic showman names and illnesses gleaned from audience members by planted guests. After talk show host Johnny Carson outed his ploy on primetime TV, Popoff’s company went bankrupt. See what he’s been up to since here.

Martin Shkreli, AKA "Pharma Bro"

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It’s not the size of the fraud in this case, but the gall this guy showed time after time. During a period of strong political division in the country, leading presidential candidates from both parties condemned Shkreli’s decision in 2015 to drive up the price of a drug without a generic alternative from $13 to $750 a pill. And that wasn’t even why he went to jail. Catch up on his story here, which includes his purchase of the only edition of Wu-Tang Clan’s 2015 record, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

Anna Delvey

Photo credit: Casey Kelbaugh/Variety via Getty Images

She was born in Russia, raised in Germany, and became famous in New York. Anna Delvey, née Sorokin, arrived in the city and climbed social ladders quickly using the art of the con. She claimed she was an heiress worth $60M and secured fraudulent six-figure loans to fund her life of luxury. The ruse was revealed in a New York Mag piece in 2018, which formed the basis of the Netflix hit “Inventing Anna.” See an overview of her life here.

Kwame Kilpatrick

Photo credit: Monica Morgan/WireImage

Kwame Kilpatrick was Detroit’s Democratic mayor from 2002 to 2008, a seemingly dynamic, revitalizing force for the city. But in 2013, he was convicted on 24 counts— fraud, racketeering, and more—in a case that enraged his constituents and once again showed how difficult it is to prevent public corruption. His 28-year prison sentence was commuted in 2021 by President Donald Trump. Read more here.

Robert Hanssen

Photo credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

There are spies, and then there are double agents. Robert Hanssen’s career, which the Justice Department characterized as one of the worst US cases of espionage ever, involved playing both the US and Russia from 1979 to 2001. He once exposed to Russia some of its flipped KGB agents, two of whom were later killed. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2001. Learn more here.

William "Boss" Tweed

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the kingpins of mid-19th century Northeastern politics, William Magear Tweed dominated the organs of power in both New York City and, eventually, the state. He leveraged his legitimate power to place his deputies in positions of influence, controlled electoral politics, and milked taxpayers for his own gain—to the tune of roughly $50M. Read more about his dominance here.

Clifford Irving

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The famed aviator, Howard Hughes, grew into a recluse later in his career, a fact novelist Clifford Irving managed to exploit in one of the most high-profile literary hoaxes in the US. In 1970, Irving published what he described as an authorized autobiography of Hughes based on a series of interviews he’d had with the airline exec, only for Hughes to debunk the claim in a widely viewed press conference in 1972. Read more here.

Joseph Howard Jr.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

As we see all the time, stocks react to the faintest of news. Amid the Civil War in 1864, Joseph Howard, Jr., editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, sought to manipulate the markets with a fake proclamation of a new Union Army draft, sure to send stock prices down and gold up. His hired messenger was able to convince two of the five major papers at the time to publish the false proclamation early that morning, but the manipulation was short-lived, and Howard was arrested. Dive into the wild history here.

Walter Keane

Photo credit: Getty Images

During the 1950s, paintings depicting sad children with big, surreal eyes were printed in the millions, with megastars owning the originals. For decades, the artist was believed to be Walter Keane, but—amazingly—it came out in the 1980s that the works were created, in fact, by his wife, Margaret. The world saw the fraud firsthand as Margaret painted in the style of the paintings during a trial, where Walter refused to paint due to a sore shoulder. Learn more about the fraud here.

Maria Duval

Photo credit: Public Domain

She was a local psychic, at first—then she granted interviews, made media appearances, and even helped out the police with investigations. Over several decades, she’d made a name for herself as a fortuneteller. Then, a group of scammers bought the rights to her name in the ’90s, directly mailing sick and elderly folks in the US asking for $40 payments for Maria to tell their fortunes or heal them. The majority of the $200M earned via the scam did not go to Duval, but to anonymous entrepreneurs around the world. Read the investigation into the scheme here.

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