Victor Lustig was not your ordinary criminal. He had charm, intellect, and an innate understanding of human psychology. Born in Hostinné (part of present-day Czech Republic) in the early 1890s, Lustig studied and acquired fluency in several languages. He eventually settled in Paris where he started swindling wealthy travelers as they toured the city.
His criminal success emboldened him and Lustig began to pull off schemes of increasing complexity and audacity. Among the highlights of his resume of crime, Lustig scammed mob boss Al Capone out of $5,000 in a fraudulent stock investment. He also repeatedly duped other career criminals by selling a phony money-printing machine for up to $30,000—a very large sum of money at the time.
But the most elaborate scam of Lustig’s career was the “sale” of the Eiffel Tower to a wealthy but naïve French businessman in 1925.
Lustig conceived the plan after reading a newspaper article detailing the rusting, deteriorating condition of the Eiffel Tower. It had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition and, at that time, there was no intention of it becoming a permanent landmark of the city.
After fabricating government stationary, Lustig sent letters to five affluent businessmen. In the letter, Lustig identified himself as the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He informed the recipients that the government intended to disassemble the tower and sell it as scrap metal. The letters were so convincing that all five businessmen agreed to meet with Lustig to tour the site and consider the proposal.
The dapper Lustig met with his perspective victims on the appointed day and brought them around the tower in a limousine that he rented beforehand.
Of the five men, one stood out to Lustig as the ideal mark for his scam. According to one source,
Lustig identified the most socially and financially insecure target, Andre Poisson, who desperately wanted to join the ranks of the Parisian business elite, and who felt that this was the right opportunity for him to do so.The Crime Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, Page 69.
After Lustig gained Poisson’s commitment to purchase the tower, the businessman’s wife became suspicious. She was concerned by the hurried and secretive nature exhibited by Lustig. When Poisson shared these concerns with Lustig, the con man feigned guilt and “confessed” to Poisson that he, Lustig, acted in such a secretive manner because he intend to ask for a bribe on account of the favorable treatment he gave to Poisson. Incredibly, Poisson believed the lied. He ultimately paid Lustig for 7,000 tons of scrap metal and added $70,000 in bribe money.
After Lustig absconded with the cash and the scam came to light, Poisson was too humiliated to report the matter to the police. Eventually, Lustig moved the United States where he carried on his illicit work.
Lustig’s Ten Commandments for con men:
- Be a patient listener
- Never look bored.
- Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
- Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
- Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
- Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
- Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
- Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
- Never be untidy.
- Never get drunk.