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10 Humiliating Cons That Duped Government Officials

by A.C. Grimes
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Running a society takes a keen mind and attention to detail. Not everyone in government is brilliant, but we hope that they’ll be smart enough to recognize and stop the blatant charlatans among them. Unfortunately, reality has a habit of disappointing us.

10 Nigerian Fraud Scheme


The “Nigerian prince” scam has existed in some form since at least the 1800s. As our society has grown more conscious of fraud, the ploy has become prime fodder for Internet memes and the occasional Sony commercial. So you’d expect that someone receiving an email from a Nigerian “dignitary” offering riches in exchange for a hefty financial investment would simply delete the message. Yet in 2006, County Treasurer Thomas Katona in Alcona, Michigan, fell for that obvious con, costing taxpayers dearly.

Katona had been county treasurer for 13 years and had even been warned by colleagues and bank employees that he was being hoodwinked when he considered investing his own money in the get-rich-quick scheme. But Katona disregarded the advice and deposited $72,500 of his own money into foreign accounts set up by Nigerian fraudsters. Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there. He also sent $1,236,700 of taxpayer money to the Nigerians.

Eventually, Katona journeyed to London to collect the zero dollars that the Nigerians had waiting for him. In the meantime, Alcona officials began to notice a gaping hole where public funds used to be. Katona had invested roughly 25 percent of the county’s budget in his Nigerian pipe dream. His reward for such harebrained criminality was a prison sentence of nine to 14 years.

9 Fraudulent Bank Accounts


Using information posted on UK city council websites, con artists have made a killing by impersonating owners and employees of businesses that local governments were slated to pay for legitimate services. The fraudsters reach out with formal letters and follow-up phone calls that instruct these councils to update the bank account details for payments to be issued to contractors. Unfortunately, city councils all over the UK have complied without bothering to seek confirmation from the contractors themselves.

According to a survey conducted by the Audit Commission, this approach to disbursing money cost the UK public at least £7 million between 2009 and 2010 alone. In 2015, the council of Derry, Northern Ireland, also fell for this scam. They were fooled by a bogus letter saying that a contractor’s payment details had changed. Without a second thought, the council sent £99,426.24 to the supposed new location.

Officials became aware of their blunder when the actual contractor expressed surprise at getting a confirmation of payment for funds that he hadn’t received. Luckily, Derry’s council was able to freeze the perpetrator’s account before he absconded with the funds.

8 Feigned Quadriplegia And Intermittent Comas


Alan Knight was a husband and father of three whose talent for grifting paid off particularly well when he met lonely retiree Ivor Richards, a man with no family to look after him. Positioning himself as a kind of surrogate relative, Knight began looking after Richards, secretly siphoning £41,570 from his bank account over three years. This didn’t sit well with Richards or the police, and Knight found himself facing jail time. Much like a child making excuses to skip school, Knight tried to evade punishment by pretending to be extremely ill.

Knight and his wife concocted a story about him breaking his neck in a freak garage door accident that had supposedly left him a seizure-prone quadriplegic. Those alleged seizures rendered the con man comatose and conveniently forced Knight to check into the hospital whenever he was scheduled to stand trial.

When Knight wasn’t recuperating in a medical facility, he needed to be at home, where his wife played Florence Nightingale. Authorities bought this story for two years, even as doctors observed that Knight was able to eat, wipe his face, and even write with his supposedly incapacitated arms.

While Knight frustrated the courts, he lived off government benefits meant to treat his faux malady. But over time, he got too cocksure and unwittingly incriminated himself. In 2014, police spied him on shopping trips with his family and finally forced him to stand before a judge. Well, not stand exactly. Knight rolled into court in a wheelchair while wearing a neck brace, but the judge was unmoved. For his shameless duplicity, Knight was sentenced to four and a half years behind bars.

7 Fake Military Credentials


In 2004, Jesse Johnston III made it halfway through a 12-week Marine officer candidate course for college students. Years later, he set out to cement an impressive military legacy with the US Army by pretending that he was already a war hero. Armed with an arsenal of fake documents, medals, and ribbons, he convinced members of the US Army (and his future ex-wife) that he was a decorated Marine.

Alongside his former spouse, Johnston had joined the US Army Reserve in hopes of being an aviator. During that time, he flaunted his manufactured military record and unearned medals. He even attended Marine functions where he was greeted with respect and adulation. Ultimately, he used his fake history to get hired as a noncommissioned sergeant, which meant that he could be called to lead men in battle during wartime.

Luckily for the military, Johnston lacked the wherewithal to flesh out important details of his lies: namely, how he’d earned his medals in the first place. Unable to explain his own stolen valor, Johnston was outed as a bold-faced liar.

The story of Johnston’s deceit was salt on an already wounded image of the US Army, which was already under scrutiny for its vetting process. Just months prior, army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan had fatally shot 13 soldiers at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, creating public concern that potential employees weren’t properly screened. Johnston, who was also based in Texas, got the army to employ him by submitting forged military discharge papers that no one was required to verify.

The US Army, recognizing its folly, began requiring that discharge papers be cross-checked with military databases. It also jailed Johnston for six months.

6 Fake Chinese Official


In recent years, China has grappled with a parade of fake government employees, reportedly numbering over 160,000. But one such deceiver stands out for trying to upstage the government instead of bilking the public out of money.

Zhao Xiyong spent three years pretending to be a Chinese civil servant. Eventually dubbing himself a “vice-ministerial inspector,” Zhao visited six Chinese provinces where he gave official speeches and hobnobbed with local leaders. According to Zhao, he didn’t benefit financially from the fraud. Rather, he simply felt he could outperform actual officials if given a chance.

Zhao started off trying to play by the rules. In 2004, he applied for a spot on China’s State Council but ultimately tasted defeat. Then in 2009, he seized a completely different opportunity. While attending a government meeting in his home province, authorities mistook him for a fellow official. With that, a devious lightbulb lit up in his head. Zhao relocated to a different province and passed himself off as a State Council researcher. The council bought into his claims, and soon Zhao was in a position to assume the role of council head.

From there, he began touring provinces, making sometimes nonsensical speeches and issuing unfulfillable promises. One of those promises—the sanctioning of a free-trade zone in a city he was visiting—landed Zhao in hot water after the media tried to confirm his claims with actual government officials. With the jig unmistakably up, Zhao was arrested.

5 Fake Government Office


In 2012, farmer and restaurateur Zhang Haixin decided to address Chinese villagers’ longstanding frustrations with corrupt officials by setting up a fake government office. Zhang’s story began in 2007 when members of the local government had consumed HK$7,550 worth of food at her restaurant in the village of Jiang but failed to pay for their meals.

Giving former villager Zhang even more impetus to stop the rampant abuse of power, these same officials offset severe budgetary limitations by illegally seizing land from poor villagers to sell to developers. She went into debt funding trips where she and fellow villagers confronted government officials in multiple cities.

When her straightforward tactics floundered, Zhang decided that the best way to beat the government was to become a part of it. To make her ruse work, she buried herself in books on electoral procedure and administrative writing. After becoming well versed in bureaucratic jargon and the ways of government, she established a phony government office within 2 kilometers (1 mi) of an actual one. Villagers were brought in to help mete out judgments on land acquisition cases. She also sought law school graduates as potential hires.

From October 2012 to November 2013, Zhang used her fabricated authority as a Beijing government inspector to halt predatory land grabs by local authorities. She also founded a bogus economic collective on behalf of her fellow villagers. But local authorities eventually caught on to Zhang. She and two of her assistants were arrested. Unmoved by the largely positive nature of Zhang’s scheme, a court sentenced her to two years in prison.

4 Illicit Meal Tickets


In 2014, New Jersey’s Office of the State Comptroller released a damning report that highlighted gross abuses of the state’s free school lunch program. It found that over 100 government employees misrepresented their incomes to qualify their children for free or discounted meals. And they weren’t alone. The list of alleged liars also included at least two lawyers for a New Jersey school board and six school board members across the state whose incomes topped $100,000 in some cases.

Most applications for free or reduced-price school lunches get rubber-stamped without the slightest scrutiny. Recognizing this, public employees and education officials throughout New Jersey decided to treat the program like an all-you-can-cheat buffet. After the comptroller’s report emerged, however, dishonest heads began to roll.

School officials and lawyers found to have stolen the public’s lunch money were charged with theft by deception. The school board president in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who underreported her income by up to $100,000, was convicted and sentenced to probation and community service.

3 Fraudulent Tax Refunds


In 2011, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) placed an estimated $3.6 billion of taxpayer money into the grubby hands of tax cheats. Most of this was caused by identity theft, including about $385 million lost in individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) scams.

The ITIN is a crucial form of identification which the IRS uses in lieu of social security numbers (SSNs) for people who aren’t eligible for an SSN, such as documented and undocumented immigrants who intend to pay taxes. But ITINs are also used by thieves who file for fraudulent tax refunds. Hundreds of these filings sometimes originate from the same address.

According to auditors interviewed by USA Today, the IRS sent 655 tax refunds to a single address in Lithuania in 2011. The agency also sent 343 refunds to one address in Shanghai and 194 refunds to ITIN filers at the same address in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. To combat this theft, the IRS eventually doubled the number of employees investigating potentially fraudulent filings and placed a five-year limit on the validity of ITINs.

2 Fake Taliban Leader

Fake Taliban Leader Dupes NATO and Afghan Negotiators

In 2010, Afghanistan’s Karzai administration, US intelligence officials, and various members of NATO brimmed with cautious optimism about the prospect of ending hostilities with the Taliban. Three times, officials had met for peace talks with Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban’s number two guy. NATO had also plied Mansour with money to whet his appetite for a cease-fire. According to US officials, Mansour even met with Karzai at the Afghan president’s palace (which Karzai later denied).

This encouraging development had one drawback: NATO was courting an impostor. After being shown a photo of the impostor, a Taliban insurgent familiar with the real Mansour’s appearance revealed that NATO had been duped. Subsequent attempts to identify the man suggested that the fake Taliban leader was actually a Pakistani shopkeeper.

In the aftermath, US officials claimed to have been wary from the outset because the fake Taliban leader had offered such nonaggressive peace terms. Rather than hinging peace on large land acquisitions and shared governmental power in Afghanistan as the Taliban previously had, the phony Mansour simply requested safe passage from Pakistan, where the Taliban was ensconced, into Afghanistan. Despite these concerns, US officials were apparently swayed enough to enter into talks.

The false Mansour’s exact identity and motives are unclear. According to one theory, he was recruited by the Pakistani government for reconnaissance purposes. Others believe that he was a Taliban spy. American officials also raised the possibility that the fake Mansour may have simply been a con man trying to make a quick buck. Whatever this impostor’s angle, he ran off with NATO’s money and left a trail of embarrassment.

1 Escaped Convict Nabbing Other Escaped Criminals


For two years, the name “Alex Mailula” was a source of pride for police in the South African province of Limpopo. A self-described police captain, Mailula dabbled in detective work and excelled at capturing escaped criminals. But Limpopo’s ace crook catcher wasn’t so much a South African Sherlock Holmes as a masquerading Moriarty.

Mailula was actually convicted rapist and prison escapee Alex Matsobane Maake. While awaiting sentencing in 2012, he escaped. Several months later, he reemerged at Seshego Police Station in Polokwane with a fake name and occupation. Maake presented himself as an officer from the national police headquarters in Pretoria who had been asked to lend his expertise. Little did authorities know that this “expertise” on the behavior of fugitives came from firsthand experience ducking the law.

Maake was described as “smooth” by those with whom he worked. He caught escapees with ease and garnered a reputation for being a ladies’ man. Living the high life, he traveled in expensive cars, seemingly unconcerned about showing his mug all over town. Police received no indication that Maake preyed on women while masquerading as an officer, but his easy access to guns and transportation provided ample opportunity before he was found out.

Police were tight-lipped about how Maake’s true identity was uncovered, but in February 2015, they took him into custody. However, Maake dodged justice again, busting loose 12 days after his arrest. With his knowledge of how police track escaped criminals, he stayed on the lam until June, when he was cornered by police and shot in the foot during a confrontation.

fact checked by Jamie Frater