4 Bold Business Scams (And Why They Failed Miserably)

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Starting a legitimate business is hard, boring work. There's paperwork to fill out, employees to hire, and all sorts of other drudgery, not to mention the biggest hurdle of all: providing a product or service for which customers are willing to pay. In all likelihood, it would be much easier to just stumble upon some clever scam to line your pockets. Or so it would seem. As many aspiring scam artists quickly learn, when a business scam fails, it tends to fail in rather grand fashion. Just ask any of these four teams of not-so-smooth operators.

A Corny Sea Story

Xenothemis and Hegestratos may not have been the world's first white-collar criminals, but they were certainly noteworthy for their incompetence. In 360 B.C, the pair stumbled upon what seemed like a killer plan to make some quick cash. Shipping was extremely risky at the time, and boats went down at sea with alarming frequency. To exploit this uncertainty, Xenothemis and Hegestratos devised a plan in which they would receive a cash advance to ship a load of corn from Syracuse to Athens. Due to the dangers associated with shipping, the buyer would take on full risk if the shipment didn't make it to Athens, so if the boat sank Xenothemis and Hegestratos could keep their cash.

Instead of loading the ship with expensive corn, the conniving pair made a plan to sail an empty ship out to sea for a few days, then sink it and escape in lifeboats. Since the boat itself was insured, this plot seemed airtight, and the potential profit was great. Unfortunately, though, the boat's other passengers allegedly caught wind of the scheme during the attempting scuttling of the ship. These passengers were understandably a bit peeved at Hegestratos' attempts to drown them for his own financial gain. Hegestratos panicked and jumped overboard, at which point he drowned. Unable to sink the ship by himself, Xenothemis had to sail on to the port, at which point the buyer, Protos, wanted to know why his shipload of corn was empty. A legal battle followed, and although the verdict has been lost by history, it's safe to say that the late Hegestratos regretted the scam.

When Friday Went Black

Despite his prowess as a general, Ulysses S. Grant's presidency didn't go so smoothly. Ones of its most notable scandals occurred in 1869, when a group of speculators upended the U.S gold market.

The plan started when financier James Fisk and robber baron Jay Gould formed a group of speculators with the goal of cornering the gold market, which would give the group the ability to manipulate the price. Of course, one can only corner the market if there's a fixed quantity of gold available. Otherwise, the government could just sell large quantities of gold, and the cornering effort would be an expensive failure. In an effort to avoid this fate, Gould and Fisk brought President Grant's brother-in-law Abel Corbin into their fold. Using Corbin's influence to get an audience with the President, the pair would argue to Grant that selling gold was a terrible idea that the government should avoid at all costs. The wily pair also used their influence at the White House to secure a position as assistant treasurer of the United States for Daniel Butterfield, who would warn them if the government started to sell gold.

With their connections in place, Fisk and Gould started buying up gold in September 1869, quickly driving the price of gold up by around 30%. Once Grant and his advisors got wise to the situation, though, the government quickly sold off $4 million in gold to break the corner, effectively killing the inflated prices on September 24th. As investors scrambled to get rid of their overpriced gold, the price plummeted sharply, and many involved in the scam lost huge amounts of money. Fisk and Gould managed to avoid big losses due to their connections in the treasury, but what would be known as Black Friday didn't earn them a huge windfall—and significantly harmed the American economy.

Bad Moves

If you've ever hired movers, you know it can be pretty pricey. Erik Deri, the founder of Woodinville, WA-based Nationwide Moving Systems, understood that most movers were expensive, so he drummed up business by offering super-cheap quotes to frugal clients. The customers were ecstatic to find a mover who could get their belongings to a new home so cheaply.

That is, until the price went up. Deri's movers would load the company's vans with all of a customer's worldly belongings, then a foreman would inform the client that they'd have to pay an inflated price to actually get their stuff to their new digs. The price hikes weren't small, either; one man's estimate stated he could move for $3,000 but was later revised to $16,000 after loading. According to authorities, if customers balked at these demands, the movers would threaten to unload their boxes and furniture into the street"¦and then charge them an unloading fee. If things got really sticky, Nationwide's trucks could just take off with all of the clients' possessions. Deri supposedly paid cash bonuses to employees who successfully strong-armed customers into forking over the premiums.

In the end, though, Deri learned that you can't scam that many customers and hope to get away with it. In 2005 he was found guilty of 27 counts of extortion and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and extortion. Three of his accomplices were also convicted in connection with the moving racket. Deri was sentenced to seven years in prison, after which he'll face deportation to his native Israel.

Fools for Gold

Bre-X Minerals Ltd. was a small Canadian mining company that made a big announcement in 1995. Geologists had discovered gold on a site Bre-X owned near Busang, Indonesia. Not just a little gold, either—at least 30 million ounces, possibly as much as 200 million ounces. Given the high prices of gold, such a deposit would have been worth tens of billions of dollars. Bre-X's stock price shot through the roof; shares went from being valued at a few cents to over $280 Canadian.

In fact, the deposit seemed so rich and so large that a small company like Bre-X could not possibly handle it all without some help. In 1997, the Indonesian government convinced Bre-X to take on an American firm as a partner to help extract the gold. When this firm, Freeport-McMoRan, started sampling the soil at the deposit site as part of its due diligence, it reached a confusing conclusion: there wasn't any gold in the soil. Subsequent examinations by independent auditors reached the same conclusion. The "natural" gold that in the original samples Bre-X had taken was mostly river gold from other regions or shavings off of gold jewelry.

Although the company's market cap had climbed to $4.4 billion, this report quickly destroyed Bre-X's value. Share prices dropped 97 percent in a day following the announcement, the company was soon removed from the Toronto Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, and Bre-X quickly went bankrupt. Amazingly, no one ended up in jail from this scam, but you should still probably be wary if anyone offers to sell you an enormous gold mine on Borneo.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

11 Fun Facts About Dolly Parton

Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born on January 19, 1809.

1. Edgar Allan Poe was the original Balloon Boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later for Edgar Allan Poe.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. Edgar Allan Poe had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. Edgar Allan Poe's death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

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