Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Imposters throughout history

Imposters are a fascinating sub-set of fraudsters. Throughout history, individuals who have committed fraud for a variety of reasons – financial gain, social mobility, and even political or corporate espionage – by pretending to be someone they are not. Some of these people are repeat fraudsters, spending much of their lives assuming other identities and committing great amounts of time to working on complex backstories for their false identities, including disguises, accents, and fake community or cultural ties. In order to commit these fraudulent acts, imposters often make deft use of social networks and engineering, by falsely representing themselves in personal or business relationships and then using one misrepresented connection in order to forge subsequent ones.

In this respect, imposter fraud is often the proximate cause of many other types of fraud, creating the trust and credibility that provides access for the faker to commit his or her offenses. Therefore from an ethical culture perspective imposters are quite interesting to study, in order to ponder their motivations or the heuristics and expectations for honesty and evidence that allow their fraudulent efforts to succeed.

  • Ferdinand Demara: Ferdinand Demara, known as the “Great Imposter,” posed as an impressively diverse array of people, including monks, law enforcement, and professors or teachers. Demara did not seem to be motivated principally by financial gain or outright confidence scam type fraud, but rather just to be taken seriously and to fill what he referred to as power vacuums in an organizations where he could get in and do whatever he wanted because of supervisory inadequacies or inattention. From this perspective, Demara’s main motivation was something like curiosity, wanting to exploit opportunities just to see whether he could do it and compete once he was successfully in place.   He stole the identities of regular people and performed their jobs as experiments, performing in the jobs actually as honestly as he could do and often even competently at that. Check out these interesting anecdotes and photographs of Demara from Business Insider.

Watch Demara tell the tales of his own exploits in an episode of the TV quiz show You Bet Your Life:

  • Christian Gerhartsreiter: Christian Gerhartsreiter’s famous alias is Clark Rockeller. Gerhartsreiter assumed this identity as a member of the famous and rich Rockefeller family in order to social engineer himself into close circles with wealthy people and eventually marry one, a successful businesswoman whose income funded his lavish lifestyle. Eventually his wife became suspicious of his strange, secretive behavior and made inquiries about his past, uncovering that he was conducting an impersonation. In the wake of this discovery, it eventually came out that Gerhartsreiter had lived under a number of aliases with fake identities and backgrounds, including as an actor, a doctor, and a European aristocrat. His imposter scams were all enabled by his social network and his cultivation of a mysterious yet important and imposing persona. Once Gerhartsreiter’s identity was revealed at the end of the Clark Rockefeller debacle, police realized that he was a suspect in disappearances from the 1980s and he was later convicted of a murder and sentenced to prison. Gerhartsreiter is a shocking and disturbing example of how effective these imposter scams can be with seemingly little real evidence ever demanded or offered of the claimed identities that give access to so much: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit.

This documentary by the network ID provides a fascinating look into Gerhartsreiter’s history of impersonation, especially how he infiltrated the affluent and elite community of San Marino to get his start in the United States toward the construction of his Rockefeller entity:

  • Frank Abagnale Jr.: Many people may be familiar with Frank Abagnale Jr. by name from the movie Catch Me If You Can which was based upon his life story. Abagnale was a prolific imposter who assumed at least eight diverse identities, including those of a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Many of his fraudulent identities were formed in order to support his financial confidence scams or to facilitate him in getting money from check forging and kiting. Experimenting with assuming different identities was the way he kept on with writing bad checks, which he initially did on his own overdrawn account in his own name but then subsequently needed to invent new names in order to open up new accounts at different banks to avoid payment demands. In Abagnale’s later life, he has worked as a consultant to the FBI, other federal government entities, and corporations in order to provide insight into why and how people commit financial fraud. He has often expressed surprise or even shock that some of his various schemes worked out at all, relying on others to do the real work or exploiting insufficient controls or security in order to carry out his schemes: Frank Abagnale, world-famous con man, explains why technology won’t stop breaches

Abagnale has also kept his expertise about deception and deceit up to date and now provides advice and insight on cybersecurity matters. Check out this interesting Google Talk Abagnale delivered on his story from 2017:

  • Frederic Bourdin: Known in the press as “The Chameleon,” Frederic Bourdin is a Frenchman who claims to have taken on as many as 500 false identities. Some of Bourdin’s highest-profile impersonations have been when he pretended to be missing teenagers, including when he posed as Nicholas Barclay and lived with the missing boy’s family for several months until DNA testing proved he was actually Bourdin and not Barclay. Bourdin was able to do his imposter act to pretend to be teenagers even when he was many years older than the missing boys and had a completely different appearance from them. Bourdin claims that his main motivation in living as an imposter is to seek the love and affection he did not get as a child; in this sense, then, pretending to be a missing – and missed – child would indeed be likely to fulfill this desire for him. So, too, would living under so many different identities allow him to avoid acknowledging the responsibility for any actions he did when he was posing as another or to come to terms with the trauma or unhappiness of his original identity and life: The Chameleon

The 2012 documentary The Chameleon centers on Bourdin’s impersonation of the missing Texas teenager Nicholas Barclay and includes interviews with both Bourdin and Barclay’s family, some of whom seem to still be in disbelief that they lived with an imposter for five months:

  • John Spano: From the world of sports, John Spano is a fascinating fraudster, who accomplished his ambition of owning an NHL professional hockey team by completing misrepresenting his business background, financial assets, and banking relationships. In 1996, he briefly owned the New York Islanders by representing himself as the owner of a large commercial leasing company. He agreed to terms both with the NHL and with various commercial stakeholders and began working on behalf of the team in negotiations and personnel manners before it was revealed his bona fides were all fake. Among some of his more impressive acts as a swindler were falsifying letters of credit to convince Fleet Bank to lead a syndicate in offering him financing for which he was completely unqualified, and repeatedly buying himself time by promising that money which didn’t exist and would never arrive was merely delayed and on its way. Spano has proven to be a chronic fraudster, carrying off subsequent schemes, and is currently in prison for theft and fraud related to later business endeavors: How John Spano Bought The Islanders

Check out this trailer for the episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, “Big Shot,” which is about the brief period that John Spano was the owner of the New York Islanders thanks to his imposter scheme:

For some imposters, including some of the ones above, identity fraud goes beyond the serial and into the pathological, with the fraud taking over the imposter’s life with schemes that go on for years and involve complex social webs of different scams used for various financial and social purposes. In the digital age, the “natural” self and the “digital,” or online/machine self, are increasingly in tension against and competition with each other, with the true definition of consciousness or humanity in balance. Manipulations to the natural self-identity then, especially if aided with technology, throw an interesting complication into this mix. How can individuals, organizations, communities, and supervisors parse the fake from the real between natural and digital identities? Imposters may pervert or falsify both sets of identities, moving between the two and in both cases blurring reality and diminishing the status of trust and truth.

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