Economic impact payment.

That’s what your payment under the CARES Act, if you are eligible for such payment, is officially called; and that’s what official communications will refer to.

If someone calls you, claiming to be from the government, and offers to help you with your official ‘stimulus check’ or ‘stimulus payment’, or says you need to ‘confirm’ certain details with them to get your payment, chances are it’s a scam.

If you do get such a call, do not share any of your personal details with them. Simply hang up.

Despicable as they are…

…scams have been around for a long, long time.

Much longer than you might think.

And some of them were a lot more ambitious than these little crooks robbing retirees of $1200.

Here are 5 financial scams you’ve probably never heard of.

Want to buy an empire, anyone?

The Praetorian Guard were an elite unit of guards in the Holy Roman Empire, whose remit was to be the bodyguards of the Emperor, and be his eyes and ears, watchful of intrigue against him.

The Roman emperor Pertinax had bold ideas for the empire, which included reforms in the Praetorian Guard.

In the year 193 AD, the Guard had him killed, and then announced that the title of Emperor was for sale to the highest bidder.

Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator of the time, offered 25000 coins (called ‘sesterces’) to every guard – the winning bid – and was duly proclaimed emperor.

Like almost all scams though, it proved short-lived, and ended in disaster.

The people never accepted Julianus as the emperor, even going so far as to obstruct his entry to the Capitol by flinging rocks at him.

And, on day 66 of his ‘reign’, Julianus was deposed and executed, as were many of the Praetorian Guard who’d ‘sold’ the Empire, by a general called Septimius Severus, who became Emperor.

All that glitters

The Cardinal de Rohan was a priest and a politician in 18th century France.

Although immensely influential, he was highly disliked by the then Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.

Infatuated with her, he was determined to gain her affections. This came to the attention of a notorious Frenchwoman of the time, Jeanne de la Motte.

The Queen’s Necklace

The Queen’s Necklace was one of the most beautiful and valuable pieces of jewellery (it may well have been so even today, had it survived). It reportedly took jewellers several years of collecting diamonds and metal to create it.

That delay led to the original buyer – Louis XV – dying, while his successor Louis XVI’s wife – Marie Antoinette – refuse to buy it.

The scam

Jeanne de la Motte presented herself to the Cardinal de Rohan as a confidante to the Queen (she was not), and assured him she would present his case to her.

Subsequently, she wrote letters to him, as if from the Queen; letters of a warm and affectionate nature; she even arranged for an ‘encounter’ between them, having found someone who looked like Marie Antoinette to fool him.

Having gained his confidence, she had him arrange for the sale of the Queen’s Necklace to the false queen, which he did, with the necklace being priced at 2 million livres (the currency of France at the time).

Having obtained the necklace, she picked it apart, pawned all the gems, and disappeared with the money.

The aftermath

She would eventually be caught and punished, the Cardinal tried and found innocent, and the scam would prove one of the triggers for the French Revolution.

Wright on the money!

James Whitaker Wright was a promoter of several companies, all of which looked highly valuable on paper, but none of which made any real money.

He’d been involved in promoting dubious companies since the 1880’s, but none of them came close to his London and Globe Company, which purported to be the leading company financing and backing mining activities in its time.

He employed two classic ploys used by con artists time and again to gain credibility in the eyes of investors:

  • He arranged for various firms under his control to loan themselves money on various pretexts, to give the appearance of continuous high value transactions taking place.
  • He charmed socially relevant individuals into joining the boards of directors.

The money from the scam made him extremely wealthy. He bought a massive estate in Surrey and a yacht with his wealth, apart from rubbing shoulders with the social elite.

Ultimately, a bond issue for a risky engineering venture would strain his finances, leading him to suspend dividends while his companies were still showing strong financial activity (due to the cross movement of monies).

That would trigger suspicions in people, leading to his downfall.

I’ve got a Tower to sell you

Have you heard the phrase ‘In that case, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you’, used to describe an extremely gullible individual?

Well, Count Victor Lustig went one better.

He wasn’t a real Count, by the way.

Anyway, in 1925, he conned two scrap metal dealers into believing that he was authorized to sell the Eiffel Tower (which was in need of repairs).

Being a kindly gentleman who had taken a liking to those two gentlemen (not!) he offered to swing the sale their way for a $2,00,000 one-time, unregistered payment (a bribe, in plain English).

Before they discovered what he’d done, he had left France for the United States.

The Baker-named League

Have you heard of The Red Headed League?

It’s one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, about a mysterious society open only to men with red hair.

Something like that happened in real life, right here in the United States.

In the 1920’s, ads started appearing in newspapers about how Colonel Jacob Baker, a hero of the War of Independence, had died, leaving behind an estate of around 1500 acres, which had been illegally seized by the United States government to build the city of Philadelphia.

The ad mentioned that one William Cameron Morrow Smith had formed a legal association to fight for the rights of Colonel Baker’s descendants on the land belonging to their ancestor. It invited donations (for legal fees) from people with the surname ‘Baker’ to fight the case.

Just one problem – Colonel Jacob Baker did not exist, and the land on which Philadelphia was built had been legally acquired.

It took years for the government to notice the scam, and shut it down, by which time William Smith had collected over $25 million in ‘donations’.


Like I said, these scams took enormous amounts of work, ingenuity and luck to perpetrate, a far cry from the miserable efforts of the despicable individuals who’re looking to steal senior citizens of $1200 during a pandemic.

Remember to say ‘not interested’ and disconnect the call if someone calls you, saying they’re from the IRS, and offers to help you with your ‘stimulus payment’.

Rhode Island’s #1 escape room will be back soon with some tips on things you can do while stuck indoors during the lockdown; in the meanwhile, stay indoors, and stay safe!