Weirdest Identity Scams that Actually Worked

Identity theft is something we’ve all come to accept. Eventually, there will be a strange charge on your credit card or someone six states over will try to buy a car in your name. It happens to everyone, despite how hard to you try to keep your information private. Banks are even blasé about dealing with the false charges. But some identity theft scams stand out—because they are really weird.

Counterfeit Wine Scam

Sometimes stealing a vintage vino’s identity is more lucrative than stealing a person’s entire identity. Well, at least until you get caught and it goes sour. In the early 2000s, Rudy Kurniawan took the wine world by storm. He had an amazing story: he’d uncovered a wine cellar in Europe filled with rare, vintage wines.

In reality, he was buying some cheap juice from a grocery store and mixing it with cheaper French wines. He made over $1.3 million in a few years, lived a lavish lifestyle and duped some of the world’s most powerful people including billionaire William Koch. Koch (brother to the famous conservatives) dedicated millions to fight counterfeit wines.

Kurniwan’s scam came to an end in 2012 when his home raided and evidence rounded up. He ended up with a 40 year sentence for fraud, but he still got away with scamming the wealthy for nearly a decade.

The 250 Million Nigerian Prince Scam

We’ve all heard of the Nigerian prince scam and the scam still nets a few victims every year, but for the most part this is one of the most transparent, obvious and ludicrous scams of all time. Can you believe a man fell for it? To the tune of $250 million dollars?

Between 1995 and 1998, Nelson Sakaguchi was in contact with Emmanuel Nwudem, the former director of the Union Bank of Nigeria. Nwudem didn’t impersonate a Nigerian prince, but he did convince Sakaguchi, also the director of a Sao Paulo bank, Banco Noroeste, that he was the director of the governor of the National Bank of Nigeria which is the next best thing, really. Sakaguchi fell for the scam: invest millions in a growing airport project in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

There was no airport, of course, but the con went on for almost three years. Once arrested, Nwudem and his accomplices tried to bribe their way out of a conviction. The whole debacle is considered one of the top three largest bank scams of all time.

SuperValu Scam

SuperValu, a chain of Minnesota-based grocery stores, fell for the kindest scam of all: the fraudsters simply asked for some money. The chain paid out a total of ten million dollars before they realized they were being duped.

It all started with a few emails from fake email accounts from representatives from Frito-Lay and American Greetings, both suppliers that sold product through the grocery chain. The emails instructed SuperValu to wire all future payments to Frito-Lay and American Greetings to new bank accounts. No one at SuperValu found this fishy, so, well, they wired away.

The scam only lasted a week, and the con artists were caught, but goes down in history as one of the simplest big-money scams that actually worked.

There are real scams that aren’t as extreme and they’re targeting regular people, not billionaire wine sommeliers. Here are some of the most common scams that target regular people.

IRS Scams

A common scam, especially around tax season, is to get a threatening call from the IRS demanding you pay up or face jail time. Usually, these are robotic calls. The IRS will never, ever call you unless they’ve contacted you by mail first. The IRS will also never threaten you with jail time over the phone. They certainly have the power to garnish your wages, take out liens on your home and throw you in jail but they don’t call and threaten people like the mob.

If you get a call like this, do not call them back. Just delete the message and forget about it. They can aggressive, calling dozens of times a day. They may even put a real human on the phone. Just remember, the IRS doesn’t work like this. These are con artists.

Utility Bill Payment Request

You may get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the utility company, demanding you pay your bill right now. They’ll want your account number, and will want payment on the phone, not later. Most utility companies don’t collect this way, they send mail first and will usually work with you to schedule your payments.

Business Listing Scams

If you’re running a small business, your business contact info becomes public record and that means a whole world of fraudsters are waiting to find you. One popular scam for business owners is to call and claim to be a representative from Google, Yelp or Facebook. If you don’t pay up, they claim, your business will never be listed in the search results. The scam can take lots of different forms, with the details varying from call to call, but in the end your business is expected to pay to be listed. This is not how any of these services work. You don’t have to pay to show up on a Google search result. Hang up and don’t call back.

If you get a strange call, the first step in fighting back is finding out who just called you. You can use a reverse phone lookup tool to plug in a phone number and see who is calling you – you can get their name, address, email and even social media accounts. Report them to the police! But whatever you do, never give someone your personal information over the phone unless you know for sure who they are.