Long Reads

8 of the most audacious scams pulled off by women

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Kate Leaver
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Feeling intrigued by the stars of Ocean’s 8? It’s time to meet the real-life ladies of the criminal world…

Ocean’s 8 is in cinemas this month, meaning that it’s finally time to enjoy this glorious crossover of all our main interests in life – fashion, Rihanna, female protagonists – in a brilliantly women-centric piece of cinema.

To celebrate the film’s release, we’ve pulled together a list of the eight greatest lady-heists and women-grifts in history. Here, you will meet contemporary and historical women of confidence: legends of the wrong side of the law, mistresses of deception. They are the perfect preliminary reading to get you in the mood for a movie in which Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson plan to steal diamonds right off of Anna Hathaway’s décolletage. 

These women, be they grifter or heist masterminds (a grift is a lesser version of the heist, but audacious all the same), are all fearless, wicked heroes of the criminal world. 

Anna Delvey

Anna Delvey attending an event in 2014.
Anna Delvey (right) at a party in New York in 2014.

Anna Delvey allegedly once fed a $100 note to a pigeon. That’s just how rich she wanted her friends to think she was: rich enough to doll out her savings as bird food. Her story of high-scale grifting has dominated Twitter this past week, as we all read about her breathtaking dalliances with money on The Cut. Delvey spent a year in New York, swindling the rich and famous simply by posing convincingly as one of them. She lived out of posh hotel rooms, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and promising to settle her bills via cash transfer. Whenever she was sprung, she simply packed her designer wardrobe into a suitcase and turned up at the next hotel, wearing her trademark Celine sunglasses and promising to be as flush with cash as ever. 

The 27-year-old socialite started out as an intern at Purple, where she got a taste for being connected to the right people. From there, she invented identities, borrowed from friends, changed her name, lied about her background and behaved as though she had money to burn. Her year-long spending spree ended in Malibu last year, when her own debt and lies caught up with her. She has been charged with six counts of grand larceny and awaits her trial in jail on Rikers Island, without bail. Might we suggest Amanda Seyfried for the movie? 

The Hipster Grifter

Kari Ferrell in New York in 2010

Kari Ferrell has a tattoo on her back that says, “I love beards”. One of her favourite lies was that she was working on a coffee table photography book with Vice where bearded men posed with her, leaning up against her tattoo. But this is perhaps the most innocuous of her deceptions; Ferrell also lied about where she worked and where she lived, as well as making out that she had terminal cancer and a stalker. Ferrell’s MO (she was nicknamed “the hipster grifter” for her tattoos, her choice of false workplaces and her general aesthetic) was to hit on guys using particularly blunt sexual text messages and begin a relationship with them, before telling them she had three months to live. She would then borrow money from them and give out a lot of bad cheques, sometimes wrangling the guy into picking up money from banks on her behalf. 

She was finally sprung when she applied for a job at Vice, got hired on the spot (based on a fake CV citing that she worked at GoldenVoice, the company that does Coachella) and started flirting with a co-worker, who Googled her and found her mug shot on the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Most Wanted list. It turned out she was wanted on no less than five warrants, including giving out $60,000 in bad cheques, retail theft and forgery. The only thing she never lied about was her name. Which is weird. 

Diamond Doris 

Diamond Doris in court in 2013

Doris Payne, AKA “Diamond Doris”, is as audacious as they come. The 86-year-old West Virginian jewellery thief has a criminal career spanning six decades, with her first arrest going down in 1952. She would typically walk into a jewellery shop dressed elegantly, pretending to be looking to purchase a diamond ring. She’d show her face, speak to the sales assistant and somehow make off with a few rings in her handbag. Her most notorious crime was in Monte Carlo in the Seventies, when she snuck off with a 10-carat diamond ring valued at a cool half a million dollars. She was arrested but the authorities couldn’t find the shiny gem so they had to let her go, stealthy as she was. This kept happening, too: arrests, releases and more glittering criminal escapades. 

She now boasts that she stole $2 million worth of jewellery in her time, ran 20 separate aliases, had 10 social security numbers and nine dates of birth. She just can’t quit either: Diamond Doris was caught as recently as July 2017, well into her eighties, stealing $86.22 worth of merchandise from Walmart in Atlanta, USA. Oh, and she was wearing her ankle bracelet from a previous arrest at the time.  

Yvonne Bannigan, Grace Coddington’s grifter

Oohwee, it’s been a big week for former magazine interns, hasn’t it? Within days of us reading about Anna Delvey’s pigeon-feeding escapades, we get another media industry grafter riding on the high of interning at a fashion magazine. Dublin-born Yvonne Bannigan, who once interned at Elle in the States, has just been arrested for grand larceny and, just her luck, handcuffs aren’t in this Spring. Bannigan had been working as an assistant to the inimitable Grace Coddington, creative director-at-large of none other than Vogue. We all know Coddington from her various forays into documentary culture: she’s the one always dressed in black, with a shock of ginger hair, working alongside Anna Wintour. 

Bannigan had allegedly been charging purchases to Coddington’s credit card and selling Coddington’s belongings online, keeping a sneaky commission of $9,000 for herself. All up, the 25-year-old reportedly stole $53,564. Bannigan is contesting the charges, according to her lawyer, and says that she is frightened and confused because Coddington never raised any concerns throughout her two years working for her, all the while keeping a close eye on the credit card bills. This is one that is destined to keep playing out in the headlines. 

Barbara Erni AKA The Golden Boos 

Barbara Erni’s heists involved a small man concealed in a large suitcase

This is an oldie but a goodie. Barbara Erni, who lived from 1743 to 1785, was notorious across Europe for her sneaky night-time tricks. She was known in Lichtenstein as The Golden Boos. What she would do is turn up at inns and hotels wearing a large backpack on her back, or carrying a big suitcase. She was known to be a woman of great strength, lugging around this luggage. She’d tell the owners of the hotels she frequented that she was carrying a grand and expensive treasure in her bag and demand that it be kept in the best room in the building overnight. What was actually in those bags was a small man, who crept out at night and stole the shiniest things from the best room in the hotel, before creeping back into his hiding spot and fleeing with Barb in the night. 

Apparently they got away with this 16 times before finally getting caught. On the 17th heist, in 1784, they were sprung. In December that year, Barbara was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading. She lost her head in front of 1,000 onlookers, making her the last person in Liechenstein to be executed on the death penalty. The little accomplice was never identified. 

Helga de la Brache

In Stockholm in 1817, a girl was born and named Aurora Florentina Magnusson. At some stage, she dropped that name and gave herself another: Helga de la Brache – which was just fancy-sounding enough for her deceitful purposes. Brache needed a grand pseudonym for a grand lie: she would swindle the Swedish authorities for some years by posing as the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden. Never mind, of course, that this famous couple had divorced in 1812; old Helga told everyone that they had secretly remarried, got sexy in a German convent and had her as a result. She claimed to have been raised by her father’s aunt, Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden, who conveniently ended up in an asylum. 

She was given a handsome pension for her false identity because frankly, Google wasn’t around to disprove her outlandish story. She had many private benefactors, friends and believers and got away with this whole exciting rouse until 1870, when a newspaper article inspired a proper investigation. In a trial in 1876, Helga was charged with making up a fake name and year of birth, and fined. She was stripped of her pension and lived out her years in an apartment with a mate. 

Madame Rachel

Madame Russell’s favourite grifting technique was to sell women fake cosmetics

Sarah Rachel Russell, AKA Madame Russell, was a Victorian-era confidence woman, turning tricks in the late Nineteenth century. Her favourite grifting technique was to sell gullible women fake cosmetics, often claiming to have make-up products with mystical qualities from exotic enough locations that her clients never questioned them. Who, for instance, would doubt the veracity of her magnetic rock water dew, bottled direct from the Sahara Desert? It was, as it turned out, a mixture of water and bran, but who’s to say that’s not glorious for the complexion, too? Women who just wanted to be beautiful paid exorbitant amounts for a tanning face powder with no discernible benefits. 

Apart from fake make-up, Madame Russell used her beauty salon as a front for shadier business practices, too: fraud, blackmail and prostitution. She is infamous for having blackmailed the well-to-do of London in that era. She was arrested several times in the Sixties and Seventies, each time returning to her dubious businesses. She died in Woking prison on 12 October 1880 after serving just two years of her five-year sentence. 

Big Bertha

Every con woman wants a slick nickname, and Bertha Heyman got two. She was known as either “Big Bertha” or “Confidence Queen” (we’d take the latter). She went about her criminal ways in the Nineteenth century, even continuing to swindle people out of money from behind bars. Bertha’s scheme was not unlike Anna Delvey’s: she essentially liked to meet men and pretend she was a wealthy woman who just couldn’t access her handsome fortune at the time. Much like Delvey, she stayed in the fanciest hotels in New York, boasting about famous friends and sweet connections. She even travelled with a maid and a manservant, to complete the appearance of epic wealth. 

But she was also a little like Robin Hood: apparently she didn’t spend her money or feed it to pigeons. Rather, she gave most of it to the poor. She seemed more interested in the thrill of the con. She was arrested repeatedly over the course of her criminal career and even managed to con a man out of his life savings while in prison for one of her scams. Her victims ranged from a sleeping man on a train to a wealthy Wall Street business man. 

Ocean’s 8 is released in the UK on 18 June

Images: Getty, Rene Böhmer, Tanja Heffner, Unsplash