The Ten Con-Mandments
31-year-old billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried was recently arrested and accused of bilking his billions from cryptocurrency investors. But he’s just one of many that have fleeced the sheep of this world. Other recent con-artists include Elizabeth Holmes (of Theranos fame), Sylvia Browne (the fake psychic), Bernie Madoff (financial fraudster), and Anna Sorokin (wealthy heiress poseur).
They say there’s a sucker born every minute, and someone else born to take care of him. In fact, there have been con-artists throughout our history. For example, I could tell you about Charles Ponzi, whom Ponzi schemes are named after. He was bilking believers a hundred years ago, back in the 1920s.
But I prefer the story of another conman who was operating about the same time as Ponzi. Not only was he highly skilled at his craft, but he also left behind a legacy. The legacy of the Ten Con-Mandments. His name was Victor Lustig.
Victor was born in Austria-Hungary in 1890. And he was born with brains. He proved himself to be an exceptionally gifted student in school. But this genius, who could have made millions legitimately, was also a troublemaker. He wasn’t content making an honest living, so he committed himself early-on to a life of crime.
After graduating school in Paris, he began traveling on ocean liners that sailed between France and New York City. He would pose as a musical producer, and con wealthy passengers into investing in a Broadway play. A play that didn’t exist.
Later he moved to Paris. In 1925, Lustig happened upon a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower. It lamented that the giant monument had fallen into disrepair, and that many favored the removal of the tower, to save money for the city.
Lustig put his genius, troublemaking mind to work at fabricating an elaborate scheme. He posed as an official from the French government, and invited a “select” group of scrap metal dealers to silently submit bids to dismantle the Eiffel Tower. He emphasized secrecy with these men, warning them that if this leaked to the public there would be a popular outcry from those who wanted to save the tower.
One of these marks was a man named Andre Poisson, and it struck Lustig that this sucker had inner insecurities, and a desire to achieve prestige within the Parisian business community. Lustig took this nutcase aside and confessed that he was a corrupt official, and was willing to accept a bribe to make Poisson the winning bidder.
Poisson swallowed the bait and proffered an inducement amounting to 70,000 francs. Lustig took the money, then quickly fled to Austria. Later, he speculated that Poisson would be too embarrassed to go to the police, and when he checked newspapers his theory was confirmed. There was not a hint of it.
So Lustig returned to Paris and attempted the same scam again. But this time the gendarmes caught a whiff of his scheme, and Lustig fled to the United States to avoid arrest.
Lustig enriched himself in the USA, deploying a variety of schemes on gullible marks. One of his most notorious was the “Rumanian Box” scam. He built a box that he claimed could duplicate any currency. However, he cautioned that it required six hours to print an identical copy, and it contained many levers and mechanisms that had to be operated just right to make the duplicates.
He would convince a mark to provide a $100 bill, to test the box. Unknown to the mark, he had already inserted his own, genuine $100 bill in the box. After this “duplicate” came out (six hours later), it was then verified at a bank to be authenticate.
Lustig sold one of these Rumanian boxes to a sheriff in Texas, for thousands of dollars. Once the sheriff realized he’d been conned, he tracked Lustig to Chicago and confronted him. Lustig then convinced the sheriff that he wasn’t operating the box properly, and as a gesture of good faith gave the sheriff a large amount of cash as compensation. But the sheriff was duped again. The money was counterfeit.
During the Great Depression, Lustig drew his aim on the mobster Al Capone. He convinced Capone to invest $50,000 in a scam he had concocted. He then stored the money in a safe deposit box. Two months later, he returned the money to Capone and sheepishly explained that the scam hadn’t worked out.
With his money back, Capone was convinced that this was an honest conman. And once Lustig sensed he’d gained Capone’s trust, he began to poor mouth. He complained that as a result of the deal falling through, he was broke and had no means to support himself. Then he convinced the sympathetic Capone to give him $5,000 to “tide him over.”
In 1930, Lustig began a counterfeiting operation with two men in Nebraska. The men, one a pharmacist and the other a chemist, turned out to be very proficient at creating fake currency. Lustig masterminded the distribution of the fake bills. Over the next five years, these counterfeiters managed to dilute the U.S. economy with thousands of dollars worth of phony money, before any suspicion was aroused.
But his scheme fell apart in 1935 after his girlfriend learned that he had a mistress on the side. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In anger, she placed an anonymous tip with federal authorities, and Lustig was arrested on May 10, 1935.
But it’s one thing to arrest such a skilled con-artist. It’s quite another thing to hang onto him. The day before his trial, Lustig faked an illness, then rappelled his way to freedom from the Federal House of Detention in New York City, using a specially-made rope. Unfortunately for him, he only made it as far as Pittsburgh, where he was recaptured 27 days after his escape. He was sentenced to serve 15 years in Alcatraz for counterfeiting, plus an additional 5 years for his escape.
But in the end, Lustig lived up to his form and got the better of the judge. On March 9, 1947, he cheated his way out of what remained of his long prison sentence. He did this by contracting pneumonia and dying at a medical center for federal prisoners.
Victor Lustig died a legend. He was one of the most successful con-artists who ever lived (if you want to call dying in prison a success), and he set the standard high for any grifter who wished to follow in his footsteps. This standard was formally established by a list he supposedly created, known as the “Ten Commandments for Con Men.”
I like to call them the “Ten Con-Mandments.”
If you would like to become an accomplished con-artist, study these con-mandments carefully. They are the product of one of the finest flim-flammers in the world. If you take them to heart, you too might enjoy the same success as Victor Lustig. That is, until you end up in the slammer.
The Ten Con-Mandments
1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
2. Never look bored.
3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
8. Never boast—just let your importance be quietly obvious.
9. Never be untidy.
10. Never get drunk.