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Keeping up with the con artist

Feb 10, 2020
The resourceful con artist has now moved to online scams, but old advice still holds, writes Des Peelo.

Confidence and a presence are often perceived as necessary for business or personal success. This resonates with me in the context of recognising con artists, better described as fraudsters, whom I have encountered.

The most outstanding was an approach from a gentleman, intending to be my client, who lived in a suite in one of the great London hotels. Of indeterminate nationality, his occupation – or the source of his apparent wealth – was not evident. Happily, I withdrew from involvement early in the saga but became aware of subsequent events.

A mine of false information

This gentleman was promoting an opportunity for investment, which was highly confidential, in newly discovered vast ore resources adjacent to a previously worked-out mine in Ireland. The geological studies and supporting paperwork (all forged) was there.

The scam worked for nearly £3 million. British aristocracy and London financiers, amongst others, came on board. Subsequently, this gentleman was arrested in the UK. He was refused bail as the police said they found nine passports in his suite. After one year on remand in a London prison, the charges were inexplicably dropped, though an accomplice and a UK solicitor were subsequently jailed. No monies were recovered.
During that year in prison, my almost-client managed to have meals delivered from the hotel, paid monthly in advance. He also started a charismatic movement and a choir. On learning of his imminent release, he called the hotel manager, who reportedly said something like “wonderful news; we will send a car” and he moved back into his suite.

That was not the end of the story. Some years later, on watching an investigative programme on UK television, there was my almost-client being named for a stunt involving investors and coffee futures in Central America. This time, still based in London, he allegedly had a prestigious commodities brokerage office in Miami.

A load of beeswax

Older readers may recall the origin of the description ‘widget’. It was first used in an amusing film, loosely based on a real event in the 1950s, about a Texas con artist launching a widget company on Wall Street. None of the financiers knew what a widget was or wouldn’t admit they didn’t know, but the word was that the oil industry was very excited about it. Hence the contemporary use of the word ‘widget’ when nobody understands the product. The modern equivalent of a widget, on occasion, might be a ‘tech disrupter’.

My possible ‘widget’ moment involved another gentleman from London. He arrived in Ireland sporting impressive achievements, connections and qualifications (all bogus), including being a medical doctor. His business card showed an address on the famous medical Harley Street in London (which turned out to be a temporary post-box).
Accompanied by a self-described titled lady, he rented a country mansion near Dublin and quickly entertained his way into the bloodstock and racing fraternity. He claimed to be developing a product akin to Viagra, long before it was invented.

The connection with Ireland was that the magic ingredient could only be sourced from the blood and urine of top-bred horses. State agencies expressed interest, impressive international names were mentioned as possible directors, suitable sites were inspected, and so on. All that was missing, of course, was the millions necessary to bring it all together.

Fortunately, shortly before substantial monies changed hands, a sceptical stud farm owner and the IIRS (then a State scientific agency) analysed a prototype unbeknownst to the bogus doctor. It was largely beeswax.

The gentleman concerned managed to depart Ireland in time, leaving large unpaid bills. He was last heard of as being in Lebanon, again something to do with horses.

Don’t be fooled

The world has now changed for the con artist. The old scams are easily identified with instant access to history, profiles and technical information. However, the resourceful con artist has now moved to online scams.

If an investment is too good to be true, it is. This adage has never changed.

Des Peelo FCA is the author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.