The Scams, Scandals, Hoaxes, Frauds and Pranks of August
I just finished a splendid book, "The Forger's Spell" by Edward Dolnick, about how a mediocre painter named Han Van Meegeren painted a series of "Vermeers" in the 1930s and 1940s and conned the European art establishment into believing they were real. One of his forgeries was the crown jewel in the collection of the world's greatest art thief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. It was a delicious hoax.
When I put the book down and started looking for news stories to pin this column to, I found August was an extraordinary month for hoaxes, fakes, scams, scandals and pranks. Let's start with Wine Spectator.
Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, is pissed. For starters:
Wine Spectator learned yesterday that, for the first time in the 27-year history of our Restaurant Awards program, a fictitious restaurant has entered its wine list for judging. To orchestrate his publicity-seeking scam, Robin Goldstein created a fictitious restaurant in Milan, Italy, called Osteria L'Intrepido, and then submitted a menu and wine list to Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards as a new entry in 2008. The wine list earned an Award of Excellence, the most basic of our three award levels. Goldstein revealed his elaborate hoax at a meeting in Oregon last week. He is now crowing about the fraud on his own Web site. The story has been picked up in the blogosphere, and now Wine Spectator would like to set forth the actual facts of the matter.
"Facts of the matter?"
Mr. Matthews, you were bamboozled. Hornswoggled. Thimblerigged. Flimflammed. Your awards program is a deeply flawed business model.
August 2008 is Miscreant Month!
A Personal Digression
Below are hyperlinks to the Web sites of the irate editor of Wine Spectator and that of Robin Goldstein, the perpetrator of what was indignantly described as a "publicity-seeking scam" and a "fraud." You'll love it!
Wine is not my thing. If I find myself in the company of effete, elitist oenophiles, I immediately head to the bar for another Grey Goose on the rocks.
My irreverent friend Mike invited a wine expert to dinner and served a trendy and expensive French Burgundy from a bottle that he opened in the kitchen, so the wine could "breathe." With a flourish, Mike showed the bottle and label and poured a splash into a balloon glass for his friend to sample. The wine expert swirled it, sniffed it and sipped it, and went into orbit over the "bouquet," "nose" and "finish." Throughout dinner, the compliments showered down on Mike for his elegant selection of wine.
Actually, Mike and his wife had consumed that bottle the evening before and, as a practical joke, filled it with Gallo, assuming the guy would immediately know the difference. He didn't. Mike and his wife were so horribly embarrassed that they didn't have the heart to reveal the hoax.
--5 Aug. 2008
Book claims White House ordered faked letter to tie Saddam and 9/11
WASHINGTON (AFP) -- A new book by author Ron Suskind alleges that the White House ordered the CIA to fabricate a letter purportedly showing links between deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the September 11, 2001 attacks. The book, "The Way of the World," was immediately attacked by the White House, the CIA and former CIA director George Tenet who is alleged to have passed the White House order to senior CIA operators. "There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort," Tenet said in a statement. In an interview with National Public Radio, Suskind said his account came from the former head of the Near East Division, Rob Richard, and others "right in the thick of this operation."
--Agence France-Presse (AFP)
--7 Aug. 2008
John Edwards: The Picture of a Scandal: New developments in the story that cannot be reported.
"We're working off our timetable, not yours," says David Perel, editor of The National Enquirer. "I'm not letting other media drive the story for us." Perel is talking about the issue of whether the Enquirer should have published, by now, photos of a July 22 confrontation in a Los Angeles hotel between its reporters and former Sen. John Edwards. Edwards had, the Enquirer reported, come to the Beverly Hilton to see a woman named Rielle Hunter, with whom he has had an affair and a baby. In an almost surreal scene described on the Enquirer's website, Edwards was said to have fled to a men's room, pushing against a door while the reporters pushed and asked questions from the other side.
--Byron York, National Review
--11 Aug. 2008
Some Beijing Olympic Fireworks Faked
Because one organization is responsible for filming the Olympics--Beijing Olympic Broadcasting--foreign TV networks had no choice but to accept the altered video. Some of the fireworks seen in television coverage of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics games in Beijing were created digitally, according to a report in The Beijing Times. Twenty-nine fiery footsteps traced in the air above Bird's Nest National Stadium were created using real fireworks. But The Telegraph in the U.K. reports that because event organizers feared they would be unable to capture the pyrotechnics live on camera, a digital effects team spent almost a year preparing a computerized version of the 55-second footstep sequence, which was inserted into the live video feed.
--Thomas Claburn, InformationWeek
--12 Aug. 2008
China Had "Cute" Girl Mime Opening Ceremony After Singer Banned For Crooked Teeth
BEIJING -- A 7-year-old Chinese girl was not good-looking enough for the Olympics opening ceremony, so another little girl with a pixie smile lip-synched "Ode to the Motherland," a ceremony official said--the latest example of the lengths Beijing took for a perfect start to the Summer Games. A member of China's Politburo asked for the last-minute change to match one girl's face with another's voice, the ceremony's chief music director, Chen Qigang, said in an interview with Beijing Radio. "The audience will understand that it's in the national interest," Chen said in a video of the interview posted online Sunday night.
--Cara Anna, Associated Press
--14 Aug. 2008
Scandal of the Ages: Documents Reveal Underage Chinese Gymnast
What began as whispers among the media and gymnastics insiders weeks ago about the ages of three of China's female Olympic gymnasts--Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin and He Kexin--has grown into ear-shattering, head-hurting shouts. Despite assurances by Chinese officials that all three are 16, the minimum age of eligibility for Olympic competition, newly discovered documents and records prove otherwise. The New York Times first looked into the age of China's gymnasts with a story on July 27 that focused primarily on He Kexin, whose birthdate on numerous online records was listed as January 1, 1994, making her 14 when the Games began and ineligible to compete.
--David Flumenbaum, HuffingtonPost.com
--18 Aug. 2008
Bottle Cap Drive for Cancer a Hoax
PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- A bizarre hoax has fooled residents across West Virginia who thought they were helping raise money for cancer patients. Churches, restaurants and businesses from Wheeling to Bluefield have been collecting plastic bottle caps, fueled by flyers that claim the caps can be redeemed for money to pay for cancer treatment. The caps, though, are worthless. Even recycling centers are rejecting them. Aleta Brace of Parkersburg collected more than 20,000 bottle caps before learning about the hoax. She's upset, but said the response shows how West Virginians are eager to help people suffering from cancer. Amy Berner of the West Virginia chapter of the American Cancer Society says the group is trying to discover how the hoax started.
--19 Aug. 2008
7-year-old boy admits making hoax call to Coast Guard
SEATTLE -- The Coast Guard says the parents of a 7-year-old Maple Valley, Wash., boy could face criminal penalties after their child placed two hoax distress calls on Sunday. Officials with Coast Guard Sector Seattle say they received the calls via VHF channel 16. In the first call, received at noon, the boy stated that he was drowning. At 6 p.m. he made a second call saying his boat had a hole in it and was sinking. They were able to get a partial address from the child and both times the boy gave his name. Petty Officer David Marin says the Coast Guard knew they were hoax calls because of the partial address the boy offered and a new technology that can track the source of marine radio calls. King County deputies were able to locate the boy's home in Maple Valley using the partial address. The boy admitted to deputies that he made the distress calls while his father was asleep.
--KING5.com Staff, MSNBC
--19 Aug. 2008
Defense: Prosecutors bending law for MySpace hoax
LOS ANGELES -- A defense attorney for the Missouri woman charged in a MySpace hoax that allegedly led to a 13-year-old girl's suicide argued in court papers that prosecutors are bending a cyber crime statute to prosecute his client. At issue is whether the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is relevant to the case against Lori Drew of O'Fallon, Mo. Prosecutors filed voluminous motions last week arguing the statute can be used to prosecute cyber bullying, though it has traditionally been used for crimes such as hacking into computers. The defense filed a thin six-page reply arguing that Drew did not violate the statute.
--Linda Deutsch, Associated Press
--20 Aug. 2008
Researcher: Bigfoot just a rubber gorilla suit
As the 'evidence' thawed, the claim began to unravel as a giant hoax
ATLANTA -- Turns out Bigfoot was just a rubber gorilla suit. Two researchers on a quest to prove the existence of Bigfoot say that the carcass encased in a block of ice--handed over to them for an undisclosed sum by two men who claimed to have found it--was slowly thawed out, and discovered to be a rubber gorilla outfit.
--Juanita Cousins, Associated Press
--20 Aug. 2008
Journal takes on drugmaker 'seeding trials'
Harold Sox doesn't seem like a firebrand ethics cop. But this 69-year-old medical journal editor believed that a message had to be sent to the drug industry about "seeding trials." "It's an imperfect world and there are imperfect motivations," Sox, the editor of the 90,000-circulation Annals of Internal Medicine, said yesterday in his office lined with medical books and educational certificates. On Monday, the Philadelphia-based journal--which is considered one of five major medical journals in the United States and Britain--published an article and scathing editorial on seeding trials. Critics say seeding trials are marketing programs masquerading as legitimate randomized trials of a drug's effectiveness, or side effects. And the Annals of Internal Medicine, which typically keeps a low profile in its offices on Independence Mall, had in its sights the ethics of one of the world's largest and most influential drug companies, Merck & Co. Inc.
--Bob Fernandez, Philadelphia Inquirer
--21 Aug. 2008
Too Old and Frail to Re-educate? Not in China
BEIJING -- In the annals of people who have struggled against Communist Party rule, Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying are unlikely to merit even a footnote. The two women, both in their late 70s, have never spoken out against China's authoritarian government. Both walk with the help of a cane, and Ms. Wang is blind in one eye. Their grievance, receiving insufficient compensation when their homes were seized for redevelopment, is perhaps the most common complaint among Chinese displaced during the country's long streak of fast economic growth. But the Beijing police still sentenced the two women to an extrajudicial term of "re-education through labor" this week for applying to hold a legal protest in a designated area in Beijing, where officials promised that Chinese could hold demonstrations during the Olympic Games. They became the most recent examples of people punished for submitting applications to protest.
--Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times
[EDITOR'S NOTE: When you are told you can protest if you first apply to the government, and then are arrested for applying to protest, that is fake, fraud, hoax or anything else you want to call it.]
--21 Aug. 2008
Text hoaxes plague Obama VP plan
CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- By the time Barack Obama is ready to announce his vice presidential pick, will anyone believe him? In recent days, as speculation and anticipation has mounted, so too have phony text messages declaring Obama's supposed running mate--from Evan Bayh and Hillary Rodham Clinton to Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. It's a cruel twist in a prolonged game of guessing that has put political junkies and Democratic supporters on edge since the campaign announced last week that it would disclose Obama's choice through text messaging, which is expected to happen by Saturday. In the absence of real information, pranksters have filled the gap with guidance from the website Wonkette--and maybe Howard Stern, too.
--Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico.com
--21 Aug. 2008
Office of the Comptroller of the Currency Sides With Banks Against Consumers on Credit Card Reform Proposal
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is urging the Federal Reserve Board and other federal regulators to water down a proposed set of rules that would prohibit banks from engaging in certain unfair and deceptive credit card lending practices, according to Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports ... "The OCC is essentially saying that if banks can't trick or cheat consumers they won't be able to offer credit," said Gail Hillebrand, Senior Staff Attorney with Consumers Union. "It is outrageous that the federal regulator overseeing the banking industry is so out of step with the needs of millions of Americans unfairly trapped in debt by abusive credit card practices."
--Gail Hillebrand and Lauren Zeichner, Consumers Union Press Release
--22 Aug. 2008
Larry Mendte Pleads Guilty To Hacking Into Lane's E-Mail
PHILADELPHIA -- Former CBS 3 anchorman Larry Mendte pleaded guilty in federal court to hacking into his former co-anchor's computer. Mendte admitted accessing Alycia Lane's home computer more than 500 times this year. Prosecutors said Mendte used some of Lane's personal e-mail to publicly embarrass her. Investigators confiscated Mendte's home and office computers back in May. "The text of those e-mails was found on Mr. Mendte's computer and ended up in the After 6 gossip section of the New York Daily News," [said] Michael Levy, assistant U.S. attorney. Mendte admitted to trying to sabotage Lane's New York criminal case. Lane was arrested on charges that she allegedly assaulted a New York police officer in December 2007. "Mr. Mendte was reading the e-mail between herself and her attorneys about this New York criminal case and leaking them to the press," Levy said.
--24 Aug. 2008
In the understated town of Cornish, N.H., where it is considered bad form to exhibit your wealth, the man calling himself Clark Rockefeller was driven around in an armored black Cadillac with bulletproof windows. He affected silk ascots and bragged that when it came to acquiring property, he could outbid anyone. He said that Helmut Kohl and Britney Spears were coming to dinner ... But Mr. Rockefeller was not only not one of the Rockefellers. He was not any sort of Rockefeller at all. That became joltingly clear three weeks ago when, the authorities say, he kidnapped his 7-year-old daughter on a Boston street and fled with her to Baltimore. The subsequent swirl of attention began the unmasking of Clark Rockefeller, exposing a long-running charade. He is now wanted for questioning in the 23-year-old disappearance and presumed death of a couple in California.
--Pam Belluck and Sara Rimer, The New York Times
--26 Aug. 2008
Data Breaches Have Surpassed Level for All of '07, Report Finds
More data breaches have been reported so far this year than in all of 2007, according to a report released yesterday by a nonprofit group that works to prevent fraud. Identity Theft Resource Center of San Diego found that 449 U.S. businesses, government agencies and universities have reported a loss or theft of consumer data this year. Last year, the center tallied 446 breaches involving 127 million consumer records. About 90 million of those records were attributed to a single retail chain, TJX, which operates T.J. Maxx stores.
--Brian Krebs, The Washington Post
55-Word Book Review
Note: In the May 8, 2007, edition of this e-zine, "The Book Business: An Industry of Whiners," I proposed an online (for profit) book service, QuickieBookReviews.com, that features short reviews (55 words) and one to four stars--just like movie reviews. Not a lot of blather from reviewers who want to show off how much smarter they are than the author, but a quick guide for readers on what books they might like to buy.
You are invited to submit 55-word reviews of any really good book that readers would enjoy.
****"The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century." by Edward Dolnick. A page-turner centered on greed, revenge and intrigue, plus a brief history of art and a fascinating course in Forgery 101. The dumbest amateur art enthusiast could see at a glance that Van Meegeren's forgeries could not possibly be authentic Vermeers. Yet the experts and leading museums in Holland were conned. Brilliantly written and illustrated. HarperCollins 2008, 349pp., ISBN-13: 978-0060825416, $26.95, hardcover.
- Alycia Lane
- Amy Berner
- Andrew Jacobs
- Barack Obama
- Beverly Hilton
- Brian Krebs
- Britney Spears
- Cara Anna
- Carrie Budoff Brown
- David Marin
- David Perel
- Edward Dolnick
- Evan Bayh
- Gail Hillebrand
- George Tenet
- Han Van Meegeren
- Helmut Kohl
- Hillary Rodham Clinton
- Howard Stern
- John Edwards
- Larry Mendte
- Linda Deutsch
- Lori Drew
- Michael Levy
- Michael Phelps
- Pam Belluck
- Ready-Made Rockefeller
- Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering
- Rielle Hunter
- Rob Richard
- Robin Goldstein
- Ron Suskind
- Saddam Hussein
- Sara Rimer
- Sector Seattle
- Thomas Claburn
- Wine Spectator.Thomas Matthews