Gregor MacGregor’s confidence trick

Gregor MacGregor earned his place in history by pulling off a confidence trick so elaborate and cruel that it led hundreds to their deaths and cost investors billions in financial losses.

On April 27, 2017, eight men from Miami were arrested for impersonating IRS agents. What they attempted to do is what’s known as a confidence trick, a type of scam in which the scammer defrauds their victim(s) after gaining their trust in some way.

A few hundred years earlier, a man named Gregor MacGregor pulled off a confidence trick so elaborate and cruel that it’s still included in the conversation for all-time scams along with more contemporary ones like those perpetrated by Bernie Madoff and the guys at Enron. Like Madoff, the Enron guys, and the men from Miami, MacGregor possessed a trait common among conmen — the ability to create fiction so believable that even cautious people are lured into reliance.

MacGregor’s famous confidence trick involved a fictional country named Poyais, supposedly located in South America (modern-day Honduras), of which he was a “Cazique,” which he maintained meant prince in the local language.

He claimed many things about Poyais. In his newspaper interviews, he described his made-up land as a tropical paradise with forests of timber, fertile land, and rivers full of pure gold. His proof? Pamphlets and large guidebooks portraying detailed maps and pictures. He even created Poyaian bank notes and land certificates for his investors.

Poyais, according to MacGregor, had everything except for manpower and investors to help develop it.

His advertising campaign was effective (an understatement). He had thousands buy into his scheme, amounting up to billions of dollars in today’s money. He also had close-to 300 hundred people committed and on boats to Poyais by the early 1820s. But those people didn’t find paradise or fertile fields or gold-filled rivers. Upon their arrival, the extent of MacGregor’s scam became clear — there were no banks, ports, towns, or even roads. The settlers were left without leadership or any real idea on how to live in such an undeveloped land. Within a year, most of them were dead.

To the unprepared or unguarded, a scammer can be especially ruinous, because there is no check or real resistance for the scammer to worry about enough to disengage. That is why the best defense against scammers is awareness.

Though we have some alarms in place protecting us from ridiculous and cartoonish schemes like Poyais, there are still many smaller-scale scams all around us that can catch us off guard if we’re not aware and ready.

One such prevalent scam is the IRS phone scam, the very same confidence trick that those eight men from Miami were attempting to pull off.

According to the IRS, the phone scam starts with an unsolicited call from the scammer, where they claim to be an IRS official. They then demand that the victim pay a bogus tax bill. They convince the victim to send cash, usually through a wire transfer or a prepaid debit card or gift card. They may also leave “urgent” callback requests through phone “robocalls,” or send a phishing email.

Many phone scams use threats to intimidate and bully a victim into paying. They may even threaten to arrest, deport or revoke the driver’s license of their victim if they don’t get the money.

Scammers often alter caller ID numbers to make it look like the IRS or another agency is calling. The callers use IRS employee titles and fake badge numbers to appear legitimate. They may use the victim’s name, address and other personal information to make the call sound official.

What do you need to know to avoid falling victim to this trick? It helps to know what the IRS doesn’t do so that you can tell a fake IRS official from a real one.

The IRS Will Never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer.
    • Generally, the IRS will first mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes.
  • Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have the taxpayer arrested for not paying.
  • Demand that taxes be paid without giving taxpayers the opportunity to question or appeal the amount owed.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Call you regarding an unexpected refund.

If someone from the IRS contacts you and they seem like the real deal, but you are still unsure about their authenticity, you should just hang up and call the IRS directly. Their number is 800-829-1040.

Protect yourself and your loved ones by practicing awareness and keeping yourself educated on the confidence tricks and scams that are out there.

(And maybe be extra careful around guys whose first and last names are basically the same.)

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