Over 50 years ago, one of the greatest media hoaxes ever was foisted upon New York City and the world at large. Overnight WOR-AM radio show host Jean Shepherd asked his listeners (“the Night People”) to go into bookstores and ask for a book that didn’t exist. Armed with a fictitious title and author, along with a vague plot outline, the Night People got their hooks in wherever they could. Fueled by bewildered bookstore owners and distributors, I, Libertine eventually did end up as a genuine bestseller. The crazy tale is recounted here in Shep’s own words on Long John Nebel’s radio show from 1968.
From the BBC Radio 4:
In January 1926, 12 years before Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, the BBC sparked a national panic of its own…
On January 16, 1926, one Father Ronald Knox, a catholic priest, interrupted an apparently genuine BBC talk on 18th century literature with a report that Big Ben had been toppled by trench mortars, the Savoy Hotel torched, and a Government minister lynched.
The Russian revolution was then less than a decade old, the General Strike already in preparation.
In this febrile atmosphere, many took Knox’s satire seriously, besieging the BBC with worried phone calls. Bad weather delayed delivery of the next day’s papers, giving rural listeners prolonged reason to assume the capital was in flames.
The BBC made several announcements later that evening that the progamme had been ‘a burlesque’ but these assurances went largely unheard
Project Alpha was a hoax orchestrated by magician and skeptic James Randi. It involved the “planting” of two fake psychics, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, into a paranormal research project. The researchers became convinced that the pair’s psychic powers were real. The hoax was later revealed publicly, leading to a backlash against the entire paranormal field.
The success of Project Alpha led Randi to use variations of the technique on several other occasions. Perhaps the most famous example led to the downfall of TV evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff, when Randi had a male postman pose as a woman with uterine cancer, which Popoff happily “cured”. In another example, Randi hired a performance artist to pose as a channeller known as “Carlos”, who was presented on Australian television and soon had a wide following. After this hoax was exposed the artist was constantly approached by people who believed him to be “real”, even if he told them directly that he was an actor.
This time it was about the missing teenager who was found last week.
Montel Williams’ psychic pal Sylvia Browne told the family of missing Shawn Hornbeck he was dead shortly after the Missouri boy vanished – and later allegedly offered to help locate his body for $700 per half hour.
The popular TV clairvoyant appeared on the “Montel Williams Show” in February 2003, four months after Shawn disappeared, and told Pam and Craig Akers she believed their son was “no longer with us.”
She also advised that his body could be found in a wooded area 20 miles from their Richwoods, Mo., home, near two large jagged boulders.
Shawn, now 15, was found alive and well last Friday, living just miles away with a man now charged with snatching the boy when he was 11.
Browne’s “vision” of his death caused search teams to redirect their efforts and drew dozens of calls from the public who believed they lived near the woods matching Browne’s descriptions.
James Randi has a whole page dedicated to Sylvia Browne who accepted his $1 million dollar challenge and has yet to take it.
YouTube has several clips of her getting busted by grieving family members.
As 2006 draws to a close, a review of ConsumerAffairs.com’s Scam Alerts archive shows that scammers have had a busy and — we suspect — lucrative year.
Targeting the most vulnerable citizens and using increasingly sophisticated tools, most have been able to easily elude law enforcement as they pick their victims’ pockets, sometimes even making off with their life savings.
The Fiddle Game is a variation on the pigeon drop. A pair of con men work together, one going into an expensive restaurant in shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. As collateral, the con man leaves his only worldly possession, the violin that provides his livelihood. After he leaves, the second con man swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (for example, $50,000) for such a rare instrument, then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving his card for the mark to call him when the fiddle-owner returns. The mark’s greed comes into play when the “poor man” comes back, having gotten the money to pay for his meal and redeem his violin. The mark, thinking he has an offer on the table, then buys the violin from the fiddle player (who “reluctantly” sells it eventually for, say, $5,000). The result is the two con men are $5,000 richer (less the cost of the violin), and the mark is left with a cheap instrument. (This trick is also detailed in the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods and is the basis for The Streets’ song Can’t Con an Honest John.)
The glasses drop is a scam in which the scammer will intentionally bump into the mark and drop a pair of glasses that have already been broken. He will claim that the glasses were broken by the clumsiness of the mark, and demand money to replace them.
Psychic surgery is a con game in which the trickster uses sleight of hand to pretend to remove bits of malignant growths from the mark’s body. A common form of medical fraud in underdeveloped countries, it imperils the victims, who may fail to seek competent medical attention. (The movie Man on the Moon depicts comedian Andy Kaufman undergoing psychic surgery.)
The Spanish Prisoner scam, and its modern variant, the Nigerian money transfer fraud, take advantage of the victim’s greed. The basic premise involves enlisting the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes goes in figuring he can cheat the con artists out of their money, but anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con by believing that the money is there to steal.
Last October a group of new Rice University students went to Six Flags AstroWorld. Among them was David Jovani Vanegas, a sophomore transfer student from UT. No one knew him too well since he lived off campus, but he was friendly. When the group got lost between the Light Rail and the park entrance, Vanegas hung around. He was a political science major, he told his new friends. He mentioned he was really glad he got into Rice.
At least, that’s what he said. Now, roughly a year later, the group knows that none of that information is true. On September 13, Rice police arrested Vanegas for criminal trespass. Turns out he wasn’t an actual Rice student but a 20-year-old impersonator. Starting last September, Vanegas began eating in Rice’s dining halls, hanging out with students and attending classes. Some nights, he crashed in friends’ dorm rooms when he was too tired to go home.
Most of the campus learned about Vanegas’s arrest in the undergraduate newspaper, The Rice Thresher. Vanegas’s friend, senior Daniel Rasheed, turned him in to the police, the paper reported. Rasheed himself had transferred to Rice the previous winter. For the past six months, he’d doubted Vanegas’s student status.
“I just wanted to know the truth,” Rasheed told the Thresher. “I just thought they’d be like, ‘Okay, he’s not a student.'”
The university is doing more than that, though. On the day of Vanegas’s arrest, criminal trespass charges were filed against him (but later dismissed). Within the next few weeks, campus administrators alleged that Vanegas had taken close to $3,700 worth of food from Rice cafeterias. On September 28, the district attorney’s office filed felony charges for aggregate theft. Bail was set at $2,000.
(via The Museum of Hoaxes)