Hoaxes, Scams, Schemes and Cons!: A Reading List

According to history.com April Fools’ Day— on April 1 each year—has been celebrated for several centuries by different cultures, though its exact origins remain a mystery. April Fools’ Day traditions include playing hoaxes or practical jokes on others, often yelling “April Fools!” at the end to clue in the subject of the April Fools’ Day prank. 

Of course, there is an enormous chasm between an April Fools prank and a real hoax or scam which can cause irreparable harm and misery to its victim.

From Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey to Frank Abagnale and Charles Ponzi, audacious scams and charismatic scammers continue to stupefy and fascinate us.

Here is a reading list of books and ebooks about real hoaxes, astounding scams and scammers, famous cons and con artists, and notorious financial fraud and fraudsters, all available with your Livingston Library card.

The Art of the Con The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore

This book tells the stories of some of history’s most notorious yet untold cons. They involve stolen art hidden for decades; elaborate ruses that involve the Nazis and allegedly plundered art; the theft of a conceptual prototype from a well-known artist by his assistant to be used later to create copies; the use of online and television auction sites to scam buyers out of millions; and other confidence scams incredible not only for their boldness but more so because they actually worked.

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Bradley Hope & Tom White

The true story of how a young social climber orchestrated one of history’s biggest financial heists, exposing the secret nexus of elite wealth, banking, Hollywood and politics.  In 2009 a mild-mannered Wharton grad, John Low, set in motion a fraud of unprecedented gall and magnitude. Low persuaded the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, to create an investment fund, known as 1MDB. Directing it from the shadows, Low raised more than $10 billion while siphoning off billions to finance elections; to purchase luxury real estate; to produce Hollywood films; throwing parties around the world. And no one seemed to notice the shady transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova

A compelling investigation into the minds, motives, and methods of con artists—and the people who fall for their cons over and over again. While cheats and swindlers may be a dime a dozen, true conmen—the Bernie Madoffs, the Jim Bakkers, the Lance Armstrongs—are elegant, outsized personalities, artists of persuasion and exploiters of trust. How do they do it? Why are they successful? And what keeps us falling for it, over and over again?

Confident Women by Tori Telfer

A thoroughly entertaining and darkly humorous roundup of history’s notorious but often forgotten female con artists and their bold, outrageous scams.

Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League by Julie Zauzmer

Adam Wheeler was a determined, resourceful, apparently bright young man who, for a few years, lived the life of an academic overachiever, using a stellar record at MIT to gain acceptance to Harvard. But here’s the thing: he never attended MIT (although he did go to Bowdoin, where he was placed on academic suspension). And, like his acceptance to Bowdoin, his entry into Harvard was based on forged documents, plagiarized admissions essays, and a whole lot of clever deceit. Wheeler lied and cheated his way into an institution thousands of students dream of attending; his arrogance eventually got the best of him, and his lies were exposed. The book ends with a trial, a stay in a mental hospital, and imprisonment.

Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler who Seduced a City and Captivated a Nation by Dean Jobb

The author documents the multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme of charismatic lawyer Leo Koretz in Roaring Twenties Chicago, the subsequent international manhunt by an ambitious state attorney, and Leo’s mysterious death in prison.

Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff by Edward J. Balleisen

The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. In this sweeping narrative, Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it—from the age of P. T. Barnum through the eras of Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.

Hoax : a History of Deception: 5,000 years of fakes, forgeries, and fallacies by Ian Tattersall

An entertaining collection of the most audacious and underhanded deceptions in the history of mankind, from sacred relics to financial schemes to fake art, music, and identities.  Tattersall, a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, has teamed up with Peter Névraumont to create this anti-history of the world, in which Michelangelo fakes a masterpiece; Arctic explorers seek an entrance into a hollow Earth; a Shakespeare tragedy is “rediscovered”; a financial scheme inspires Charles Ponzi; a spirit photographer snaps Abraham Lincoln’s ghost; people can survive ingesting only air and sunshine; Edgar Allen Pie is the forefather of fake news; and the first human was not only British but played cricket.

The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con by Amy Reading

In 1919, Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet lost everything he had in a stock market swindle. He did what many other marks did—he went home, borrowed more money from his family, and returned for another round of swindling.

Only after he lost that second fortune did he reclaim control of his story. Instead of crawling back home in shame, he vowed to hunt down the five men who had conned him. Armed with a revolver and a suitcase full of disguises, Norfleet crisscrossed the country from Texas to Florida to California to Colorado, posing as a country hick and allowing himself to be ensnared by confidence men again and again to gather evidence on his enemies. Within four years, Frank Norfleet had become nationally famous for his quest to out-con the con men.

My friend Anna: The True Story of the Fake Heiress who Conned Me and Half of New York City by Rachel DeLoache Williams.

From a photo editor at Vanity Fair comes the true account of her friendship with “Anna Delvey”–a woman posing as a German heiress who conned her out of $62,000–and her quest to obtain justice.

The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking by Adam Sisman

Traces the strange career of one of Britain’s most eccentric criminals. Motivated not by money but by a desire for prestige, Robert Parkin Peters lied, stole, and cheated his way to academic positions and religious posts from Cambridge to New York, Singapore, and South Africa. Frequently deported, and even more frequently discovered, his trail of destruction included seven marriages (three of which were bigamous), an investigation by the FBI, and a disastrous appearance on Mastermind. Based on celebrated historian Trevor-Roper’s own detailed “file on Peters,” this is a witty and charming account of eccentricity, extraordinary narcissism, and a life as wild and unlikely as any in fiction.

The Spider Network : the Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and one of the Greatest Scams in Financial History by David Enrich

About a decade ago, an ambitious banker figured a way to make big bucks by manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate, known in the trade as LIBOR. Tom Hayes, a trader, conspired with colleagues to skew the rate to get a bigger return on his trading activity; he was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiracy to commit fraud. This exciting book chronicles the genesis of Hayes’ plot, the investigation, and his trial.

The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques

How did Bernard Madoff pull off history’s greatest Ponzi scheme, and get away with it for so long? To fool his investors and any regulators who happened to come sniffing around, Madoff built a Potemkin-like investment operation complete with traders at fake terminals pretending to buy and sell stocks and a bogus paper trail of transactions and accounting reports. Madoff emerges here not as some master criminal, but as a sad, hapless man who, lacking the character to tell the truth at the critical moment, stumbled foolishly and blindly into one of the crimes of the century.

-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian

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