Written by Mapwiya Muulupale
History is littered with infamous con men. Gregor MacGregor and Victor Lustig are perhaps the most legendary.
MacGregor, a Scot, is best known for a scam where he invented an entirely non-existent country and was convincing “investors” to hand over funds to exploit natural resources found in “Poyais,” his fake nation for which he was the crown prince.
Lustig was an Austria-Hungarian. His most well-known scam happened in 1925.
He was in a Paris hotel room reading a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower. Built for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, it was meant to be dismantled in 1909.
Due to its height, it served as a radio tower and proved useful for spying on Germans during World War I. It was now rusting and proving expensive to repair and maintain. The article said the State was struggling to find funds for its upkeep and the journalist ended by asking whether it might not be better to just sell it.
Lustig’s eyes lit up. Eureka!
He would sell the Eiffel Tower!
That it did not belong to him was just a minor detail; he would sell it.
Lustig was getting bored with petty scams, selling machines that printed USD100 bills and raking in between USD20,000 and USD30,000 per unit for himself.
He would stock a machine with a few counterfeit USD100 bills. After a bit of ‘programming’, they would materialize from the machine as if they were being printed.
Since it took about six hours to “print” one bill, by the time the two or three bills were “printed”, Victor would be extremely far away, with the real cold hard cash.
It was becoming boring; hence his relishing the opportunity to sell the Eiffel Tower.
He got some stationery printed that appeared to be from the Department of Post, Telegraph and Telephone, the government department in charge of public buildings.
Next, he finagled a fake ID and sent invitations to the top five iron salvage companies in Paris, informing them that they had been given the honour of bidding on an important government project and inviting them to a meeting at the Crillon Hotel. This was a high-end hotel.
On the appointed day, the five company representatives arrived.
Lustig delivered a compelling presentation, reiterating the well-publicized condition of the tower and its skyrocketing maintenance costs.
The government, he said, had no choice but to dismantle and sell it. However, he added, it was a delicate matter requiring the utmost discretion.
All parties agreed on maintaining confidentiality.
After treating them to a sumptuous lunch, he took the five candidates for a tour of the tower.
Unfortunately, a crew of workmen were busy measuring and assessing the tower for paint and repairs. Lustig told his delegation that they were preparing to dismantle the 7,000 tons of iron.
Flashing his fake ID at the entrance, he led the delegation in to inspect the merchandise. After the tour, he emphasized that time was of the essence, and he would be expecting bids the next day.
A very skilled scammer, he was second to none in reading people. He had identified his victim almost immediately, a certain Mr André Poisson.
This gentleman looked insecure and desperately wanted to make his mark in the industry.
However, when Mr Poisson came for the second meeting, he revealed that his wife had some doubts. He was not sure if he would bid.
To quell his mark’s unease, Lustig immediately took him into his confidence. He grumbled about the peanuts he earned as a civil servant and that he needed a bit of extra cash. If Mr Poisson could add just a bit of extra padding, he would guarantee him the deal.
Since Mr Poisson knew civil servants to be corrupt, he figured out that a con man would never ask for a bribe and concluded that this was 100% legit.
He duly paid the asking price, plus the bribe and off disappeared Lustig into Vienna where he read newspapers every day expecting to see his name and his masterful scam on the front page.
He waited and waited. There was nothing.
When his victim went to the Post, Telegraph and Telephone headquarters with his bill of sale to ask when the tower would be dismantled, they laughed him off.
Embarrassed about being conned and afraid to lose face in Paris, he never mentioned the scam to a single soul. Not even the police.
Lustig came back, sent out five more letters to different salvage companies and repeated the entire process.
This time without luck.
The new “buyer” did some research, discovered it was a scam and reported to the police.
Lustig escaped just in time, crossed the Atlantic to the United States where he resumed selling money printing machines.
You know what made me re-read Victor Lustig’s exploits? The scam that we – Malawians – suffered. Everybody who has been following former president Peter Mutharika’s denial of events that were happening right under his nose and involved his TPIN knows that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sold us an “Eiffel Tower” in Peter Mutharika in 2014.
Since then, we have been operating under the impression that someone was in charge when in fact DPP looters were running amok, uncontrolled, unchecked, and unsupervised the whole five years.
Hence the thievery, the absent president and Norman Chisale’s multifaceted adventures.
Despite APM this and APM that, no one was in charge!
Makes you want to cry, doesn’t it? Not me, I am laughing hard.
Look here, DPP con men – like all scammers Lustig included – suffer from two things: (a) greed and (b) over-confidence.
DPP believed that we were all daft.
After successfully scamming us from 2014 to 2019, they had the nerve to re-scam!
However, unlike Lustig who escaped, there is Covid19, and they are all stuck here, being picked up one by one by Malawi Police. Poetic justice at its best.
Karma, Blues’ Orators, is indeed a bitch!