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Phuket: The Big List: Great Imposters

THE BIG LIST: Pranksters, hoaxers, fakers, imposters and impersonators. Pretending to be someone (or something) that you’re not might be just a joke, or it might get more serious.


Tom Metcalfe

Wednesday 19 December 2012, 05:34PM


Phuket: The Big List: Great Imposters

Fake Flyer: Perhaps the most famous serial imposter, Frank Abagnale, masqueraded as an airline pilot for two years to get free flights around the world. His escapades inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leo DiCaprio (pictured above). At the age of just 16, Abagnale got hold of a Pan-Am pilot’s uniform and forged a pilot licence. In the 1960s, that was enough to let him aboard Pan-Am flights as an unscheduled passenger, and by the time he was caught Abagnale had clocked up more than a million air miles on more than 250 flights to 26 countries. The airline even footed the bill for his hotels and restaurants overseas. Abagnale also impersonated a hospital doctor for 11 months, and got a legal job for the State Attorney General of Louisiana using a fake law diploma from Harvard. He was captured in France in 1969 when a flight attendant recognised his face from a wanted poster.

Fake Terracotta Warrior: Pablo Wendel, a German art student in China, was so impressed with the 2200 year-old terracotta warriors in the western city of Xian that he decided to sign up with the ancient army, if only for a few minutes. Pablo carefully constructed a terracotta warrior costume, with dusty brown armour, a tunic and helmet, and jumped into an excavation pit during a guided tour of the archaeological site in 2006. He stood motionless among the ranks of statues – and his costume was so convincing that it took security guards several minutes to find him. Pablo was arrested, but because he hadn’t damaged anything he was let go after a stern lecture from the guards.

Fake Footballer: British prankster Karl Powers from Manchester has built a small media career by impersonating players at sports events – most famously as an extra player in a Manchester United team photo in 2001. Powers walked onto the pitch in team colours before a game against Bayern Munich and stood beside Andy Cole while the photo was taken. Later that year Powers won further fame when he walked out to bat for England during a test against Australia, and in 2002 he beat Michael Schumacher to his place on the winner’s rostrum for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Fake FBI Consultant: William Hillar, of Maryland in the US, was sentenced to 21 months in prison this year for an elaborate deception that even fooled the FBI into hiring him to teach its trainees. Hillar had posed for years as a retired US Army colonel who’d served with the Green Berets in Asia, the Middle East, and Central and South America. He also claimed his daughter had been kidnapped and murdered by human traffickers, and that her story inspired the 2008 movie Taken.

In fact Hillar had spent only eight years with the US Coastguard, where he was a low-ranking radarman, and his daughter had never been kidnapped or murdered. But that didn’t stop Hillar fooling some of the top law enforcement officials in the country for years. Between 1998 and 2010 he earned more than US$150,000 from contracts to teach officials about counter-terrorism and how to carry out drug raids, including more than US$17,000 in fees from the FBI’s “Command College.”

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