The Most Profitable Lie Ever Told in History

A list of lies, deception, and trickery has made this man a legend.

A list of lies, deception, and trickery has made this man a legend. Les Chatfield/Flickr

The master of ‘lying for profit’ has got to Victor Lustig. Some of you may already know about this man, and to be honest I’m not adding anything new so you can skip this article.

But, for those of you that don’t know him, you are about to meet one of the greatest con-man who has ever lived, probably. I guess the good ones don’t really get caught to become famous in the first place.

Victor Lustig was the king of deception and trickery. He was born in 1890 in what is now the Czech Republic. As a young man he studied languages. He also studied people: their habits, mannerisms, and especially their weaknesses, and decided to do something in that field instead. By the age of twenty he was a confirmed conman.

By the age of thirty he was a confirmed wanted man on the run from police in several European countries. Here are some of the cons that he pulled off. A list of lies, deception, and trickery that made this man a legend.

Con One

In 1922, Lustig went to Missouri and showed interest in an old farm that a bank had repossessed, but could not sell. Lustig wanted the farm. So he went to the bank who owned the farm and he gave a sob story of how his life of nobility in Austria was destroyed when the country was overthrown as a result of the first World War. He claimed to the bank that he had come to America to rebuild his life with what was left of the family fortune and chose a life farming.

He then offered the bankers $22,000 in bonds to buy the farm and the bank gladly accepted it. Lustig also convinced them to exchange an additional $10,000 of bonds for cash so that he can operate the farm. The bankers, again, gladly accepted. The trickery comes in when Lustig, at the time of the exchange, switched envelopes and made off with both the bonds and the cash.

Funny thing is that he didn’t bother to hide his escape, and when the bankers hired a private detective and got caught, he was cooperative. But, on the train ride with the captors, Lustig convinced them that if they did press charges, there would be a run on the bank by its depositors and the bank would go belly up. Lustig then managed to convince his captors that they should give him $1,000 for the ‘inconvenience’ that the arrest had caused him. So he managed to twist the whole the story and walked away to freedom with their $1,000 in his picket. I think that’s what you call ‘smooth’.

Con Two

While in Montreal on ‘business’, Lustig decided to con the fuck out of a Vermont banker named Linus Merton. He arranged with a pick-pocket to steal Merton’s pocket watch. And, he did. But, he wasn’t satisfied and decided to give it back in 24 hours. But, that is exactly what he had in mind in the first place. By giving the pocket watch back, he had gained the trust of the banker.

He introduced Merton in on a scheme that he was using to earn money since the family’s fortune had been confiscated during the revolution, yes, the same alias he used at the bank in his other con. Lustig claimed that his cousin worked at a bookie and was able to intercept the race wires, meaning that he could find out the winners to every horse race a few minutes before anyone else. He explained how it was a guaranteed win. Merton agreed to the tip, and in the process of the con, he announced that his wife was ill and they have to move as quickly as possible. The pressure made Merton to make one last bet, but Lustig gave him a wrong tip. This meant that Lustig had just taken $30,000 for a bet that Merton had made in a bookie joint that was a setup in the first place. Very cheeky.

Con Three

This is Lustig’s potentially most famous con as of today. In May 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris with another man named Collin, another con man. While in Paris, he began reading the papers and it was a consistent pattern of articles claiming that the Eiffel Tower was in need of repair and that the repair job was cost prohibitive. There was also a brief comment exploring the idea that it might even be cheaper to rip it down than to repair it.

If Lustig ever had a ‘eureka’ moment, this would be it. He decided to sell the Eiffel Tower. Lustig had a counterfeiter create official government stationary and personally “appointed” himself to the official position of Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He then sent letters to five different scrap iron dealers. The letters where purposely written in a vague manner so that they would accept his invitation to meet him in a hotel suite to discuss a possible government contract.

After joking about with these men for a bit at the hotel, Lustig made the surprise announcement that the government was indeed scrapping the Eiffel town and whether they will be willing to make a bid on the scrap metal. Lustig went off and sold the Eiffel tower to a man named Poisson. The devious man drove of to Austria immediately after, with the money of the sale in his pocket. When there, he continuously checked the papers to find that the scam had come to light, but it never did. Poisson was too embarrassed to come forward with the news to the authorities.

Lustig saw that as an opportunity and sold the Eiffel Tower again. Unfortunately, Lustig was dubbed to the authorities and there was no third sale of the tower.

Lustig saw that as an opportunity and sold the Eiffel Tower again.

Lustig saw that as an opportunity and sold the Eiffel Tower again. Pexels

These are some of the greatest cons known of him today, excluding the one con which earned him $1,000 from the drug lord, Al Capon. But I thought that’s not a big enough payout to be including the whole story in this answer.

Here is the important bit for all of you aspiring con artists. Before his death, Lustig wrote down the ten-commandments for pulling the best cons. Here they are and you are welcome:

  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 mark reveal any religious views, then have the same ones.
  5. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
  6. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances – they will tell you eventually.
  7. Hint at sex talk but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows strong interest.
  8. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
  9. Never be untidy.
  10. Never get drunk. Sorry guys.

Mo Amini is a business student, entrepreneur, and Quora contributor. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Follow Mo on Instagram: m.a.amini1 The Most Profitable Lie Ever Told in History