The Most Ridiculous Internet Scams And Hoaxes That Actually Worked

Let's face it: the world is full of suckers. Or to put it differently: the world is made up of the haves and the have-nots, and it is not uncommon for the latter to want to be among the former. And this desire to live on Easy Street like the other fat cats, or to at least get a small piece of the action, often leads the gullible right into the hands of frauds. "The grift has a gentle touch," wrote linguist David W. Maurer in his seminal book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. "It takes its toll from the verdant sucker by means of the skilled hand or the sharp wit."

But Maurer published that book back in 1940, a time when scamming a mark out of his hard-earned dough meant seeing him face-to-face. Swindles back then consisted of everything from a rigged game of three-card monte to elaborate investment or horse betting scams that involved entire groups of con men working together in a fake brokerage or bookmaker's office to give the illusion of a legitimate business, all of which would vanish once the con was complete. The internet has definitely made it easier for the con man to trim his mark, but perhaps it has made us all a bit more gullible, as well. Let's take a look at some of the most ridiculous internet scams that seemed to have made the con man's job a bit too easy for him.

The internet's version of the advance fee scam

The advance fee scam has been around since long before Nigerian princes began emailing everyone about once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but it has apparently been so successful that it has come to stand in as the cliché internet scam. Its basic structure involves the con man offering access to a large sum of money, but first the mark must put up a smaller sum of money in order for it all to work out. According to the FBI, it is often referred to as the Nigerian letter or "419" fraud (419 being the criminal code in Nigeria for such a scam). The scammer often claims to be a high-ranking government official who is trying to sneak a bunch of cash out of the country, but for some reason needs your financial backing and/or banking information in order to do so. Once you've helped out in this way, you'll supposedly get a percentage of the loot, but this money obviously doesn't exist.

This scam spawned a vigilante movement known as "scam baiting," which involves people acting as marks ostensibly to distract scammers from others who may fall victim to the fraud. However, as noted in Racism Review, this practice has been observed to be more a form of spiteful racism than protection of potential victims.

All's fair in love and internet scams

Potential monetary gain isn't the only reward that can lure in a mark. If there's one thing that makes us more susceptible to fraud than money, it's romance, which usually involves some kind of leap of faith or assumption of intimacy with another person. And what's worse: this type of scam can end up breaking your heart as well as your bank account.

Just ask Ellen of British Columbia, Canada. According to The Star, she sent "Dave," a person she met online, over $1.3 million after they met on They never met in real life. She bought a ticket to Los Angeles, where he supposedly lived, to meet him, but he canceled, claiming to be involved in executing his father's estate. Despite his shady, evasive behavior, and a refusal by a wary Western Union employee to send her first $945 payment, Ellen persisted in sending money to "Dave." It's quite obvious that "Dave" was not Dave, but he probably also wasn't even a single person. Canadian fraud experts told Ellen that her online inamorato was most likely several people working together to grift her for as much as possible.

Fraud conducted via online dating platforms has become so common that websites like have stepped in to help people avoid being swindled by supposed suitors. Experts, dating sites, and victims agree: People who meet potential partners online should never, ever send them money — not even a little bit — without having met them in person.

The wedding singer scammer

Lovers aren't the only ones who get burned in online scams involving romance, as Celtic musician Marc Gunn learned the hard way. "I'm miserable right now, and $2,500 poorer," he wrote on his blog. "My band was the subject of internet fraud."

In September 2007, Gunn accepted a gig for the wedding of a guy named Pitt Andre. Gunn's policy is that clients provide an upfront, non-refundable payment of half the cost of the gig, which in this case was to be $1,500. However, the check he received was for $2,500. "Mr. Andre" claimed it was an error by his accountant and asked Gunn to return the difference. The autoharp-rocking musician agreed to do so after the check cleared, but before it went through, Andre called him with terrible news. The wedding had been canceled. Something about the mother-in-law having a heart attack. The client asked for a full refund, and despite his own "non-refundable" policy, Marc Gunn agreed and sent Pitt Andre a money order for $2,500. The check never cleared, so that money came directly out of Gunn's bank account. The lesson here: if your policy says "no refunds," that means no refunds.

Win Mark Zuckerberg's millions

This hoax hit the internet back in 2015, but fortunately it didn't cost anyone any money — just a bit of dignity (if there's any dignity to be had on Facebook). According to Hoax Slayer, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he and his wife Priscilla Chan were celebrating the birth of their daughter by giving away $45 billion of Facebook stock to charity. Then, for some inscrutable reason, Facebook users began to spread chain status updates claiming that the post entered them into a sweepstakes to win part of that moolah.

"THANK YOU, MARK ZUCKERBERG, for your forward-thinking generosity! And congrats on becoming a dad!" the post read before claiming that he was going to give 10 percent of that sizable donation to everyday users who took the few seconds to spread the chain message to 5-10 of their Facebook friends. The scam message said that 1,000 people would receive $4.5 million each, and it spread like wildfire on the social network. Again, no one actually lost any money, but lots of folks surely looked foolish for a few days, until everyone completely forgot about it.

And we know people forget about stupid chain messages like this, because it wasn't the first time such a ridiculous hoax had made the rounds online. Hoax Slayer also documented a similar chain message that was sent via email in 2007 which claimed that super rich Bill Gates was going to give us all a piece of the pie for clicking "Forward."

The QAnon conspiracy theory is an absolute cash cow

Apparently it's not just the nation getting scammed out of the truth. People are paying good money to be completely duped. According to The Guardian, the purveyors of the absolutely ludicrous conspiracy theory known as QAnon — which claims, among other bonkers pieces of fiction, that the United States is secretly run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who drink children's blood in order to ... (okay, that's enough) — are making bank off its credulous adherents. One creator of a QAnon Patreon site was reported to be earning as much as $3,000 a month from his gullible subscribers. And that's not all. He was also gathering valuable data on those millions of visitors to his site, which is worth a small fortune to marketers.

Although adherents have failed to provide even one shred of evidence of the claims of the mysterious "Q," who is purportedly a government insider, the theory has taken hold in the United States and abroad. And in addition to scamming people into buying QAnon merch and leading an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, it is also taking a toll on families, many of whom have been destroyed by arguments over the absurd theory. As the Washington Post reported, people have formed support groups for those who have lost friends and family members to the cult-like movement.