Pursuits | TV/Film

4 real-life scams that made it to the silver screen

Ponzi schemes, stock market manipulation, cheque fraud—on television and in the movies, fiction pales in comparison to reality

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a scene with Tom Hanks from the Steven Spielberg's 2002 film 'Catch Me if You Can'In Catch Me In You Can, Tom Hanks plays U.S. FBI Agent Carl Hanratty who was on a mission to capture cheque forger Frank Abagnale played by Leonardo DiCaprio (Allstar Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

Sometimes movies about fraud seem like they were dreamed up in a Hollywood studio—too far-fetched to be true. Yet, some of these movies are based on real events. Here are four films inspired by real scams.

1. TEAM SPIRIT (L’OUTSIDER) (2016)

Jérôme Kerviel, a trader at Société Générale (one of the world’s biggest banks) gambled with the French institution’s money and lost nearly 5 billion euros. Not surpringly, accounting services had sounded the alarm repeatedly about activity in Kerviel’s account. Was management aware of Kerviel’s misdeeds? Did it turn a blind eye as long as the bank was raking in the cash? Or was the bank a victim of a rogue trader? Christophe Barratier’s film doesn’t try to answer these questions—and that’s perhaps for the best.

2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) had a simple strategy: convince potential investors that the stock price of dying companies is about to soar, then sell his shares in those companies at premium prices. This classic pump-and-dump scam made the fraudster rich and famous, and gave Hollywood a script made of gold. Some critics complained that the film exaggerates some of Belfort’s traits, but with Martin Scorsese at the helm, this is still one of the most successful dark comedies about the world of finance.

3. ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (2006)

Enron, the seventh-largest company in the U.S. in 2001, managed to hide losses of nearly US$70 billion by window dressing its books. The energy broker collapsed overnight, dragging auditing firm Arthur Andersen down with it. This Alex Gibney documentary reveals violations that defy belief, from suspicious transactions by a corrupt financial executive to deceptive mark-to-market schemes to pump-and-dumps scams. 

4. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)

This film, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, features Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Frank Abagnale, one of the most talented American cheque forgers of the 20th century. Not only did he pass off multiple identities (airline pilot, lawyer, doctor), but he also signed $2.4-million in fake cheques before he even turned 20. After being arrested several times, Abagnale, now 71, became a public speaker and an FBI consultant. In a 2017 interview, he claimed that cheque fraud is now “a thousand times easier” than it was during his criminal heyday.

NOT TO BE MISSED: THE MAPLE SYRUP HEIST – DIRTY MONEY (2018)

While not a film, this episode of Brian McGinn’s Dirty Money docuseries on Netflix could not be left out. It tells the story of how back in 2011 and 2012 more than 9,500 barrels of maple syrup in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec, were stolen from the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, dubbed the “Canadian Fort Knox.”

The heist—valued at $18.7 million—is captured in episode five of the series, which tells stories of coporate corruption. Produced in the U.S., the documentary puts the focus on a far more nefarious culprit—the supply management system, which it denounces relentlessly.

HONOURABLE MENTION: THE WIZARD OF LIES (2017)

Few talk about Bernie Madoff anymore—a name that will forever be associated with Ponzi schemes. The former NASDAQ chair—sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009—stole US$65 billion from 13,000 investors, skimming off funds from new clients to pay returns promised to others.

In Barry Levinson’s HBO biopic, based on the investigation led by Diana Henriques of the New York Times, Madoff is played by Robert De Niro and his wife Ruth by Michelle Pfeiffer. Viewers may wonder how Madoff managed to swindle so many people if he was as unpleasant as De Niro makes him out to be, but it’s easy to get drawn in all the same.