It seems like we're living in a society that's full of scams, hoaxes and questionable practices committed by individuals or corporations these days. Some scams are purely horrible, some are more incredible than egregious, and some are just really, really weird.
Welcome to Cons And Pros, a weekly roundup of the most outrageous scam stories we have come across this week.
The imagery of gambling nuns is already a peculiar one enough on its own, but add to that imagery two nuns who stole money from the school they worked at to fund their gambling habits and you get one helluva weird scam.
According to GQ's Sean Flynn, Sister Mary Margaret and Sister Lana Chung allegedly misappropriated the school funds of St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California to support their penchant for gambling. The amount of money they stole — measured to be around $500,000 — seems especially egregious considering how Sister Mary Margaret, who ran St. James, often claimed that the school had no money and was operating on a shoestring budget.
"Our education was affected," a girl who graduated from St. James in 2015 said at the meeting. "We sat there day after day in class being berated verbally on what to do, what to say, what to wear, and how to act by Sister Mary Margaret and Sister Lana, who were telling us we did everything wrong," she said. "Yet they were over here committing federal crimes and stealing our parents' hard-earned money for their personal benefit.
"I was called a liar," she said, "by a woman who's the biggest liar I've ever known."
It's not every day that we get a scam that involves ice cream trucks, but this week we were treated with the news that around 50 ice cream trucks in New York City were seized for participating in a traffic fine-dodging scam.
Instead of paying up the fines that these trucks had racked up over the years — which has amounted to over 22,000 violations and a staggering $4.5 million in fines — the owners would transfer ownership of the trucks to fake companies to avoid paying.
"It's not only the money, it's the deterrence factor," New York City Sheriff Joseph Fucito said. "Summonses act as a deterrence. If there's no deterrence, then there's no reason to follow any of the traffic laws."
The owners avoided paying fines by transferring ownership of the trucks between dozens of fake companies. They were caught when the Department of Finance tried to collect those debts and learned the companies didn't exist.
From the 1930s to the early 1950s, Peter Christian Barrie had a remarkable trick that ensured he and his backers would win on the racetrack: he would enter a fast horse in a race disguised as a slow horse.
And how did he pull off such a disguise? With great artistry and lots and lots of bleach and dye.
The art of the con is in making the track stewards and the bettors believe the winner really was the slow horse having an inexplicably good day. That's where Barrie came in. He was a horse painter, perhaps the best in the world. His tools were simple: bleach, ammonia, bandages, silver nitrate, and henna in shades from blood to chocolate. He could turn a bay with a white star on its face into a dappled gray, and he could do it so convincingly that the gray's last trainer would swear it was his horse.
The story of Daniel Spence, a conman who bilked his friends and romantic partners of hundreds of thousands of dollars, is a perplexing one. His methods of financial exploitation were numerous: he would convince his victims to invest in a fake trust fund for asbestos victims, steal their social security numbers and credit cards or use their identity to rack up more debt, and in one case, even steal a $6,000 diamond ring while staying at a friend's house.
One of the interesting wrinkles in Spence's story is that he almost acquired the Brooklyn-based Northside Media Group after becoming interested in the company through a Grindr date. Spence was eventually caught by the police before he had the chance to officially take over the company, but what a weird turn of events that would have been if he had not.
While his crimes have largely been uncovered, Spence's motive remains a mystery:
More than anything, like almost everyone else I spoke with as I reported this story, they couldn't figure out Spence's endgame. Had he been planning to use the Northside deal to obtain a bank loan, disappear and pop up in another state with his mother? Was he after Stedman's identity? Or was it all just a delusional ego trip—the fake asbestos ad guy reinventing himself as the fake badass magazine owner?
A college student diagnosed with auditory and visual sensory processing disorder and ADHD recounts how she or he uses a special testing room to cheat on exams:
The privacy of that special room gave me a great opportunity to start cheating. When I take a test, I have to check my bag and leave my phone on a rack in the hallway before going into the room with a computer that has no internet access. But what I do is print out a study guide and notes and stick everything under my shirt or under my coat or a denim jacket with internal pockets. I've snuck in 30 pages of notes and even a full textbook this way.
In his new book "The Truffle Underground," Ryan Jacobs documents the troubling lengths people go to in order to thrive in the truffle market, a market estimated to be worth around $330 million in Europe alone. To capitalize on the high value of truffles, there are people who steal and people who try to pass off lesser-valued truffles as highly sought-after species. There are also people who have killed for truffles.
Remo Damosso, a veterinarian with a practice near Alba, estimated he sees three or four poisoned dogs per week during the truffle-hunting season from September to December, killed by everything from rat poison to shards of glass. Truffle-hunting dogs are also regularly stolen.
And when it comes to fraud, even some of the biggest truffle companies in the world are suspect:
In 1998, one of the world's largest truffle companies, Urbani Tartufi, got caught mislabeling their produce when Italian officials discovered 47 tons of Chinese truffles in the company's warehouse.
They had been purchased for $20 per kilo and looked nearly identical to European black winter truffles, which, at the time, were worth about $400 per kilo. If the company were to successfully sell all 47 tons of Chinese truffles they would have made roughly $18 million in fraudulent profit.