Hoax Museum Blog: Identity/Imposters

Fake Duke Scam —
Status: Imposter
I kinda thought the posing-as-British-royalty scam had gone out of style with the end of the British Empire. But it seems con artists are still getting mileage out of it, as seen by this story in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

A group of Stillwater student journalists discovered [Joshua Adam] Gardner had been using a false identity when visiting the school in recent weeks. He'd been posing as "Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland" while staying with a Stillwater family for the past two months, investigators say.

Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland? People believed that? Though it seems his primary targets were teenage girls (who were probably pretty impressed to meet a Duke).

Update: CNN has published an article about this guy, who also called himself the "Earl of Scooby." It details how the students exposed him as a fraud. It also reveals how he came up with his name: ""Caspian" was a nickname he'd taken from the "Chronicles of Narnia" book series, he said, and Crichton is from author Michael Crichton."
Posted: Sun Jan 15, 2006.   Comments (3)

Remembering The Plumber From Plympton —
Status: Marking an anniversary in hoax history
The million little biographical lies of James Frey have been getting all the attention in the press this week, but as the Devon Western Morning News reminds us, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a memoir whose lies were far greater: The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa (aka the Plumber from Plympton). Rampa claimed to have grown up in Tibet (born into a wealthy Tibetan family), to have studied in Lhasa to become a lama, and then to have undergone a mysterious operation to open up the "third eye" in the middle of his forehead. This operation supposedly gave him psychic powers. But in reality, Rampa wasn't a Tibetan monk. He was actually Cyril Henry Hoskins, son of a plumber from Plympton, England. He hadn't even been to Tibet. As the Western Morning News puts it:

it is probable that his globetrotting was mostly restricted to commuting from his home in Plympton to Wadebridge, where he was born and later worked as a clerk and occasional fisherman.

When confronted with the facts about his past, Rampa admitted he had been born Hoskins, but explained that his body had been taken over by Rampa's spirit. Skeptics might say that Rampa/Hoskins was full of it. But happily, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, we now know that it doesn't matter if a memoirist lies about their past, as long as their "underlying message of redemption" is inspiring to readers. By this new standard, I think Rampa just might be off the hook.
Posted: Thu Jan 12, 2006.   Comments (5)

J.T. LeRoy: An Update —
Status: Evidence is mounting that he's a hoax
Last October I posted about the writer JT LeRoy, and the suspicion that he was an elaborate hoax: that his books had actually been written by a woman named Laura Albert, and that the person who appeared in public as LeRoy was an actor. Today the New York Times has revealed more evidence that seems to confirm this theory. The person who has been appearing in public as LeRoy seems to be Savannah Knoop, the half sister of Geoffrey Knoop (who's the guy that supposedly helped rescue the teenage LeRoy). The Times found an image of Savannah Knoop online, and people who have met LeRoy confirm that she is he. Take a look:

Savannah Knoop

J.T. LeRoy

The Times also notes that there's "a mounting circumstantial case that Laura Albert is the person who writes as JT Leroy. Pressure to admit the ruse has been building on Ms. Albert since October, when New York magazine published an article that advanced a theory that she was the author of JT Leroy's books." They note that all the money paid to LeRoy appears to go to Albert or her family members. They also note that LeRoy wrote a travel article for the Times about a trip to Disneyland Paris, but (after looking at pictures of Albert) employees at Disneyland have confirmed that the person who was traveling as LeRoy was actually Albert.

So it seems pretty clear that LeRoy is a hoax.

The question is, does it matter? Defenders of LeRoy have been arguing that if people enjoy the books, the identity of the author shouldn't matter. This is a lot like the excuse that P.T. Barnum always offered, that it doesn't matter it people are fooled, as long as they're entertained. Critics are responding that it does matter because readers have been manipulated into caring about someone who doesn't exist. I suspect that the critics are going to win the day in this case, because the phony LeRoy has gone too far and people feel like they've been used. So LeRoy will probably go the way of Milli Vanilli. We'll have to wait to see if readers file a class-action suit against LeRoy.
Posted: Mon Jan 09, 2006.   Comments (5)

House For Sale - Princess Caraboo’s Grave Attached —
Status: A piece of hoax history for sale
image The Bristol Evening Post reports that the house adjacent to what is believed to be Princess Caraboo's grave in Bristol is up for sale. The asking price is a fairly reasonable £299,950 (about $530,000). (I reported back in 2003 that the gravesite was in danger of being paved over to make a parking lot, but I guess that threat was averted.) I can't find the Bristol Evening Post article online, but here's the property listing. (From the date of the listing, it looks like it's been on the market for a while.) If I had the money, I would seriously think about buying it. I figure it would be a great place for a real Museum of Hoaxes. Plus, it would be close to my wife's family in Gloucester. Unfortunately I don't happen to have a spare half-million in my bank account at the moment. So much for that idea.
Posted: Fri Jan 06, 2006.   Comments (7)

Skaggs Strikes Again —
Status: TV show gets hoaxed (but claims it hoaxed first)
Hoax master Joey Skaggs has issued a press release describing the latest deception he's been involved in. I can't find the release posted online, so I uploaded the pdf file he emailed to me. I've also excerpted the main part of the release below:

Skaggs was contacted by producer Ben Sinden of ITV Factual, about a 90-minute special called "Danny Wallace's Hoax Files," to air in prime time Monday, December 19, 2005, on SkyOne throughout the UK. Sinden said Danny Wallace wanted to speak with the all-time great hoaxer Skaggs to see if he could teach him anything. In Skaggs' experience, producers of shows like this tend to overuse flattery, thinking that people will jump at the chance to be on TV. But Skaggs prefers not to become involved with this type of show. He'd rather expose them for what they are - self-aggrandizing and exploitive infotainment.
So, on October 30, 2005, rather than do the interview himself, Joey sent his friend Norman Savage in his place. Although Wallace had claimed to be a big fan of Skaggs' work, he apparently did not know the difference.
Savage, a novelist, has sat in for Skaggs before. In 1988 he appeared as Skaggs on "Entertainment Tonight" for a piece called "The Inside Story on Great Hoaxers," and in 1991 sat in for him on "To Tell the Truth" where he stumped the panel without the show's knowledge that he himself was a hoax.
Wallace's apparent plan was to attempt to hoax the hoaxer. He switched places with producer Sinden, who donned Wallace's signature glasses and messed up his hair. Savage, who had never met Wallace, was none the wiser, but apparently to his credit did a fine job impersonating Skaggs. Sinden proceeded to do the interview with Savage and each was happy in their duplicity, neither realizing the doublecross.
It wasn't until later, after the shoot, that the Skaggs switch was revealed to Wallace, and further confirmed while reviewing the collection of news clips of prior real Skaggs appearances licensed from other networks for use in the show. Says Skaggs, "It stands to reason that had he figured it out during the interview, he would have busted Savage, on camera, and used it in the show."
Realizing he'd been had, there was now a need for damage control. The trip to New York with the crew had cost the production company money. So now, how to salvage Danny Wallace's anticipated "leg up" on Skaggs? On December 8, Wallace phoned Skaggs to tell him he knew that Savage had played him and that, in fact, he (Skaggs) had been hoaxed by him (Wallace). Wallace was now going to make Skaggs confess! Curious to know what he had planned, Skaggs asked, "Are you pulling the interview?" "No!" said Danny Wallace, gloating, "We're going to show that it wasn't me doing the interview with you! We're showing a split screen with the fake you on one side and you on the other and we'll cut to me posing as crew during the interview." Skaggs replied, "Uh... Danny, but you didn't succeed in hoaxing me because, uh, it's not me!"
So, if the piece stays in the show, they'll be showing a fake interviewer interviewing a fake interviewee, while gloating about it. Unfortunately, Skaggs has seen this type of lame spin before. Embarrassed journalists who have fallen for his hoaxes, have frequently done follow-up stories to convince the audience that they knew the truth and were just going along for the ride.

The thing is, I recall being contacted by a researcher from this show, who wanted my advice on who the top hoaxers in the world were. So I mentioned Joey Skaggs. (Unless I'm confused about whom I discussed Skaggs with. Possible, because it was a while ago, but I'm pretty sure it was them.) In other words, I may have played a small role in giving him this hoaxing opportunity. Though the show doubtless would have contacted him anyway without my suggestion. (And I did warn them that Skaggs likes to turn the tables on the media.)
Posted: Sat Dec 17, 2005.   Comments (9)

The Husband Mannequin — image Suzy Walker's husband is away from home, serving on the USS West Virginia. But you'd hardly know he was gone, because Suzy carries around a life-size mannequin of him:

Walker bought her stand-in man for $200 and she takes him everywhere. He's been to the movie theater, Victoria's Secret, and the gas station to buy lottery tickets. The couple attracts lots of attention.

The only thing that could make this creepier would be if it turned out she didn't have a real husband. Didn't William Faulkner write a short story with a premise like that?
Posted: Mon Dec 12, 2005.   Comments (22)

John Just Wants To Go Home For Christmas —
Status: Hoax
Here's a sob story that was reported by the Brazosport Facts:

A boy named John, 10, separated from his mother since the hurricane, was living with other foster children in an emergency shelter, and he had one Christmas wish: to go home. "But there's no way I'll get gifts for Christmas. I don't even believe in Santa anymore," he was quoted as saying.

Quite touching, except John doesn't exist. He was invented by a caseworker with state Child Protective Services in Brazoria County near Houston. The caseworker was evidently hoping to use the phony sob story to drum up charitable contributions. The hoax was discovered by Dan Lauck, a reporter for a local TV station who tried to track down John to interview him.

This, of course, is not the first time a sob story has been invented to tug the heart strings as Christmas approaches. Fake sob stories have actually become something of a holiday tradition. Four years ago I started to put together a list of fake Christmas sob stories (plus a few Xmas pranks). I never got that far with my list. I should add Poor John to the list.
Posted: Sat Dec 10, 2005.   Comments (7)

Alibi Network —
Status: Real
image In June 2004 the New York Times published an article about alibi networks, which are informal networks of people who will provide excuses for each other:

Cellphone-based alibi clubs, which have sprung up in the United States, Europe and Asia, allow people to send out mass text messages to thousands of potential collaborators asking for help. When a willing helper responds, the sender and the helper devise a lie, and the helper then calls the victim with the excuse -- not unlike having a friend forge a doctor's note for a teacher in the pre-digital age.

Apparently someone thought this would be a great basis for a business and launched AlibiNetwork.com, which describes its mission as being: "To invent, create and provide personalized virtual alibis for people wishing to anticipate and justify absences." As far as I can tell, this company is absolutely for real. Their most frequently requested alibi is "a phone number in any area or country code staffed by an operator trained in accents pretending to be a hotel receptionist." This will set you back $275. I assume that someone who really doesn't want to get caught during a weekend tryst, might consider this worth the price. Of course, the question lingering in the back of the mind of its customers must be: could an alibi service ever transform into a blackmail service?
Posted: Mon Nov 21, 2005.   Comments (4)

Fake Family Software —
Status: Hoax-facilitating software
Genealogists are in an uproar about new software that allows people to create fake (but real looking) online family trees. The program is called Fake Family. (Because of the controversy, the website of the software maker is now given over to an Open Letter to Genealogists.)

Genealogists argue that the fake information created by this program could easily find its way into real family history databases. They also charge that the only purpose of the software is to create webpages that will lure people with false information, and then profit from advertising links.

The maker of the software, Don Harrold, defends his creation by insisting it's very unlikely that a serious researcher would be taken in by the information Fake Family produces. For instance, the software will often list people as being born in cities before those cities existed. He also makes a curious point:

The people most upset about Fake Family seem to be folks who have a RELIGIOUS reason for being upset. (However, if I was going to be baptizing people who had passed on, I would do more research than just "grabbing names" from a website.)

Does this mean there are people who do genealogical research in order to retroactively baptize their ancestors? Can a dead person be baptized? I had never heard of such a thing.

Anyway, Harrold's basic argument is valid enough. The internet is so full of misinformation that anyone who uncritically uses historical information they find online is asking to be misled. But having said that, it sounds like the purpose of his program is to create spam (spam that clutters search engine results rather than email inboxes). And spam in any form should be condemned.
Posted: Sun Nov 13, 2005.   Comments (56)

Dr. Richard Chopp (unfortunate name for a urologist) —
Status: Real
I would think twice (and then maybe another three or four times) before going to a urologist named Dr. Dick Chopp. I would also suspect the name had to be a joke. But it doesn't seem to be a joke. It's his real name. He works at the Urology Team, based in Austin, Texas:

Dr. Richard (Dick) Chopp is well known in the Austin community for performing Vasectomies. He also enjoys treating patients with metabolic evolution of kidney stone disease, male endocrine urology disorders, prostate disease and Peyronie's disease. He has extensive laparoscopy surgery experience, is on the transplant team and performs Living Donor Nephrectomy.

He joins that select company of other unfortunately named doctors such as Dr. Reinhardt Adolfo Fuck and Professor Chew Shit Fun.
Posted: Mon Sep 26, 2005.   Comments (19)

Skype Prank — Here's a prank perpetrated on the Skype system (an internet-based phone and chat service) that proves you never know who you're talking to online:

A profile is put up with a girl's name and picture, and put in "Skype me" mode. Within minutes some seedy guy will invariably try calling/chatting, and there's a little program I made running the whole time which will partner up people 2 at a time, and send messages from the first person to the second, & vice versa. This way both people think they're talking to a girl, when they find out, well, they're not normally too happy about it...

It reminds me of the VixenLove program (which was a computer program designed to simulate a 19-year-old girl). But this is better, because it pairs up two real people and makes them waste their time hitting on each other.
Posted: Tue Sep 06, 2005.   Comments (10)

Piano Man Was a Hoax — image Back in May I wrote an entry about the Piano Man mystery (the institutionalized piano player in England who was lacking an identity). At the time I doubted it was a hoax, but I was wrong. My wife, who immediately said his story reminded her of Princess Caraboo, was right. He was pretending to be mentally ill. (According to the article "he had previously worked with mentally ill patients and had copied some of their characteristics.") A few days ago, he suddenly started speaking and revealed his identity. Now he's been sent back to Germany, his home country. Although the authorities are not revealing his identity, I've heard that reporters are trying to track him down.
Posted: Mon Aug 22, 2005.   Comments (15)

Oompa Loompa Imposters — image For years Ezzy Dame has been living a lie. Thirty four years ago he padded his resume with the claim that he had played an Oompa Loompa in the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. With the release of the recent version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reporters sought him out for his opinion, as an ex-Oompa Loompa, about the film. This caught the attention of a real ex-Oompa Looma, Rusty Goff, who outed him. Goff claims that he's aware of other "Oomposters."

There are other Oomposters, Goff said. One little entertainer in New York tried to pass himself off this year as an Oompa Loompa, evading reporters from The Times in London when they compiled a story on the original stars.

I'm tempted to add a line to my resume claiming that I was an Oompa Loompa.
Posted: Sat Aug 20, 2005.   Comments (23)

Wired Article About Peter Lynds — Wired has an article in its current issue about the amateur time-theorist Peter Lynds. Lynds and I had quite an argument going about two years ago. This argument gets mentioned in the Wired article:

For a while, the question of whether instants exist was superseded by the question of whether Lynds exists. His claims were so outlandish, the scandal they provoked so fervent, and his home country (apparently) so exotic that the Internet Museum of Hoaxes briefly decided Lynds wasn't real. He spent months corresponding with the webmaster to clear that up. This part of the Lynds controversy turns out to be the only mystery I could resolve without knowing advanced physics.

The problem is that this is incorrect (plus, it makes me sound like some kind of idiot who thinks no one in New Zealand can be real). I didn't doubt that Peter Lynds was real. What I suspected was that Lynds was creating all kinds of phony aliases to promote his work. This is what we were arguing about.

For instance, I suspected that Lynds was using false names to post flattering comments about himself on message boards. I also became suspicious that a press release written about him (the press release which brought him to the attention of most people) was actually written by Lynds himself. The author of the press release was a woman named Brooke Jones. But when I did some research I discovered that Ms. Jones's work address was the same as Peter's home address. So I think that I had some grounds to be suspicious. Plus, even though I tried to get Ms. Jones on the phone many times, she would never speak to me. I did find out, however, that Peter had a girlfriend named Brooke.

So anyway, that was the real disagreement between Peter and myself. I just thought it was unethical for him to be creating all kinds of phony 'sock puppets' to hype his work. I've already written to the author of the article, Josh McHugh, to complain that he mischaracterized my disagreement with Lynds.
Posted: Thu May 26, 2005.   Comments (29)

The Piano Man — In the past few days the 'Piano Man' has been getting a lot of attention. He's a guy who was found "wandering on a windswept road on the Isle of Sheppey". He was dripping wet and very confused. The authorities took him to a hospital where the staff discovered that although the guy refuses to say a word, and they have no idea of his identity, he is an accomplished piano player. He's now been at the hospital for a couple of weeks, during which time he hasn't said a word, but he loves to play the piano. All of this seems very similar to the case of the pianist David Helfgott, who was depicted in the 1996 film Shine starring Geoffrey Rush. The cases seem so similar that some people are suspecting it's some kind of hoax or prank. I really doubt it's a hoax. It sounds like he's been at the hospital long enough that the staff would have seen through it by now if the guy were just putting on an act. (thanks to KJ for forwarding some links about this)
Update: My wife pointed this out to me. Could the Piano Man be a modern-day Princess Caraboo?
Update 2: A Polish mime claims that he knows the Piano Man and says that he's a French street musician named Steven Villa Masson. This has yet to be confirmed.
Posted: Tue May 17, 2005.   Comments (28)

Kaycee Nicole in Training — Interesting letter in today's Dear Abby:

DEAR ABBY: I am a 10-year-old girl who has been playing after school on a Web site for pet lovers. I like to talk to kids older than me — 14- or- 15-year-olds. A lot of the boys I've talked to have asked for my picture, so I went to Google and found a picture of a pretty blond girl around 15 years old. I have been sending this picture to all the people who have asked me for one.

So this is what the future holds for us. A whole generation of Kaycee Nicole Swensons in training.
Posted: Fri Jan 07, 2005.   Comments (33)

Confessions of a New York Escort — The latest possible faux-blog gaining attention is nyhotties.com, the online diary of a twenty-something New Yorker named Alexa who quit her job as an editor's assistant at a fashion magazine a few years ago and became an escort (her blog is somewhat safe for work, R-rated language, but relatively tame images). This immediately invites comparison to Belle de Jour the supposed London call girl who kept a blog. Belle managed to secure a book deal from her true-confessions blog (her book arrives in stores in just two weeks). Like Belle, Alexa doesn't offer any proof to back up her claim that she's a call girl. You just have to take her word for it. Also like Belle, Alexa is quite well educated, "Majoring in English and Philosophy in a good New England liberal arts college," and seems to have literary ambitions.

In one of her recent posts Alexa addresses the issue of people doubting whether she really is an escort, noting that "One reader went so far as to suggest that I'm actually a 300lb man in some office in Nebraska." Alexa claims to be "genuinely perplexed" about people's doubts, not seeming to realize that if she makes an extraordinary (or even somewhat unusual) claim, then the burden of proof should be on her to prove her claim. It shouldn't be on all of us to prove that she isn't real. If she's not willing to offer such proof, then we shouldn't be willing to believe her. After all, there's an obvious motive for her to lie: to get attention and possibly land a book deal. Sure, read her blog if you find it amusing. But why take the extra step of actively believing her? Unfortunately most people don't maintain this skeptical distance because the human impulse to believe is very, very strong, which is exactly why con artists stay in business.

Alexa pleads that we have to take her word for it, because there's no way for her to prove that she does what she says she does. It doesn't occur to her to invite a trusted third-party person, such as a reporter, to verify her story. But then, that option never seems to occur to the Rances and Belle de Jours of this world.
Posted: Sun Jan 02, 2005.   Comments (28)

Nick Nolte’s Blog — Here's yet another possible faux celebrity blog. This time it's the blog of Nick Nolte. It's probably becoming a sign of status in Hollywood to have a faux blog... it shows that someone out there cares enough about you to want to pretend to be you. Imagine all the forgotten stars waiting desperately for someone to create a fake blog about them. Maybe they eventually break down and pay someone to pretend to be them... which would make it a faux faux celebrity blog. Lost in Technophilia argues that the reason to believe the Nick Nolte blog isn't real is because the domain name is registered to someone called "Christian Newton" living at 501 Privacy Lane, Santa Monica, CA 90402. Obviously a fake address. Or maybe Nick Nolte just didn't want to give out his real address.
Posted: Thu Oct 14, 2004.   Comments (4)

Fake Maoists — Fake Maoists are running amok in Nepal, robbing people and extorting money from shopkeepers and businessmen. What's next? Fake Marxists holding up banks? Phony Socialists looting liquor stores? Meanwhile, the Real Maoists are fighting back against the Fake Maoists who, so they claim, are trying to ruin their reputation. For some reason this reminds me of the fake eunuchs at large in India.
Posted: Thu Oct 07, 2004.   Comments (0)

The It-Was-My-Twin-Sister Excuse — image Aylar's career as a finalist for Miss Norway was about to come to a crashing end when her secret past in the adult film industry was revealed. The rules of the Miss Norway competition clearly forbid contestants from having posed nude for money. But luckily Aylar had an explanation ready at hand. That woman doing all those things in those movies wasn't her, even though it looked exactly like her. It was her twin sister. (Wasn't there an episode of Friends where this happened to Phoebe?). Unfortunately for Aylar, a quick investigation revealed that she had no twin sister. She's now the ex- an ex-finalist for Miss Norway.
Posted: Wed Aug 18, 2004.   Comments (7)

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