4 Bold Business Scams (And Why They Failed Miserably)

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

gold-bars.jpgDespite 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

erik-deri.jpgIf 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

brex.jpgBre-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.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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