Who are your favorite white collar criminals?
No, we don’t aspire to be them. White-collar crime has always been captivating to the public. White-collar crime is intriguing, shocking and gripping. It’s amazing how certain people can get away with so much and fool the whole world.
By definition, white-collar crime is a non-violent crime motivated financially and committed by businesses and government professionals.
Nowadays, entrepreneurship has morphed into merely selling promises, and getting the trust of important people who are willing to fund you. The culture of ‘fake it til you make it’ defines American entrepreneurship has created people like Elizabeth Holmes, Billy McFarland, and the like.
How about real white collar criminals? Here are some of the most notorious ones:
1. Elizabeth Holmes & Theranos
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is a documentary chronicling Elizabeth Holmes, founder Theranos, with an invention that promised to revolutionize blood testing.
In the early days, it seemed like it was going well her way. She was heralded as the next ‘Steve Jobs’, and she looked like then next promising, brilliant entrepreneur that would lead a startup unicorn. Elizabeth dropped out of Stanford to pursue her startup.
Theranos had a valuation of US $9 billion. In 2015, Forbes had named Elizabeth Holmes as the world’s youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire in the United States (What Does a Billion Really Mean?).
Some of her backers include General James Mattis, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz to publicly support Theranos. She got the Walton Family, Carlos Slim Helu and Rupert Murdoch to invest in Theranos. Holmes had several high-level people supporting her– Steve Jobs did not even have this kind of support from high-level people at the start of Apple. The founder and the product were so hyped up by the media.
People want to buy into the story of the young person who wants to change the world. Elizabeth Holmes created her self-brand as the female version of Steve Jobs, her idol.
Meanwhile, no one asked “does it work?”
Did Holmes even understand her technology?
In fact, there have been whispers about Elizabeth Holmes’ comprehension of her own invention. In one article, her explanation is defined as ‘comically vague’:
“What exactly happens in the machines is treated as a state secret, and Holmes’s description of the process was comically vague: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.” [Holmes] added that, thanks to “miniaturization and automation, we are able to handle these tiny samples.” (VOX)
In less than two years, her net worth is zero and her multibillion-dollar company was dissolved. Fortune had named Holmes one of the World’s Most Disappointing Leaders.
Thing is, people only see what they want to see. Elizabeth Holmes’ image fed into the Silicon Valley myth of the young genius who drops out from university; further exacerbated by the fact that Holmes is a unique character in Silicon valley: a female startup founder, and thus a unicorn of her own. This is a classic case of hyper-optimism of Silicon Valley that morphed into a monster on its own.
Read more about the story of Elizabeth Holmes by getting a copy of Bad Blood, a delightful read:
If you’re not a bookworm and more of a movie buff, you could also watch HBO documentary ‘The Inventor’ on Amazon using this affiliate link.
You can watch the full documentary on HBO or watch it on YouTube:
2. Billy McFarland & Fyre
Let me summarize it in 1 word, 4 letters: FYRE.
To those who aren’t familiar, Fyre Festival was this massive failure in the history of festivals. Marketed as a ‘luxury music festival’ in a deserted island purportedly owned by Pablo Escobar.
One Fyre Festival ticket cost thousands of dollars and promised a VIP experience with exclusive villas, private jets, supermodels, and celebrities. The real festival was far from that. It left hundreds of party-goers stranded and hungry; rich kids housed in disaster tents and cheese sandwiches.
You can read more about the festival disaster on Business Insider.
To those who have seen the Netflix documentary special, you can watch it at FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened.
Billy has become the laughing stock, and has spawned some T-shirts and merch to immortalize the epic fail of a festival.
The epic party disaster immortalized Billy McFarland as the laughing stock and a place in one of our favorite white collar criminals. He was sentenced to six years in prison for defrauding investors and ticket holders.
Interestingly, in the show, there have been a lot of people who worked with him who voiced their concerns, doubts, and suggestions to withhold the festival–but they all fell on deaf ears.
Instead they are responded with stuff like, ‘we don’t need cynics in the team’, in typical Billy style–cool, nonchalant, we-can-wing-this attitude.
It’s easy how we can blur the lines between optimism and delusion.
Too Many Billys…
But Billy is no isolated case. In fact, Billy reminded me of one too many. Venture capitalists back entrepreneurs who are confident and charismatic. The problem is, it’s hard to detect empty words from the real thing.
Entrepreneurs have an infectious energy. The public loves men with a silvery tongue and sweet marinated words. People hear what they want to hear, and it’s easy to get blinded by what you want to see.
3. Jho Low & 1MDB Scandal
Southeast Asia (except maybe Singapore) is not unfamiliar with government corruption scandals. However, the 1MDB scandal orchestrated by Jho Low is beyond another level.
I first read about the Jho Low story in the book Billion Dollar Whale – The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World and the story was too good for words. Later, his story was featured again in one of the episodes of Netflix series ‘Dirty Money’.
Who is this shy, awkward, chubby Chinese guy and why is he hanging out with celebrities?
He is best friends with Leo di Caprio, parties with Paris Hilton, and spends 160,000 US dollars in a nightclub… in one night.
He has funded many Hollywood movies, the most famous being The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo di Caprio and directed by Martin Scorsese (Ironically, the movie is about a white collar criminal, produced by another white-collar criminal)
He even bought Miranda Kerr a glass piano (reported to be worth $1 million)
Jho Low is the mastermind of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund (1MDB) under the regime of Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Najib Razak (whose wife eerily reminds me of our very own Imelda Marcos). Under his ‘management’, he misappropriated RM 2.67 billion (at least US$700 million) of public money into personal bank accounts.
The 1MDB is now known as the world’s biggest heist.
The scandal came to public light when the whistleblower Xavier Justo, PetroSaudi former director and Swiss banker, released 230,000 emails incriminating the suspects.
The trial is still ongoing but coming to a close (with defense leaning towards Najib a victim – Straits Times).
You can see the detailed timeline at Channel News Asia.
Where is Jho Low now?
Jho Low immediately fled Malaysia when the scandal is at its height, and has been an international fugitive since 2015.
From Unreserved, Jho Low has broken his silence since he fled Malaysia. In his interview at ST, he downplayed his involvement in the crime and said he is only an ‘intermediary’ in the grand scheme of things, having employed
The interview is mostly pointless, a pathetic attempt to launder his tarnished name.
According to Lho:
“I confirm I was offered asylum in Aug. 2019 by a country that acts in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights & the European Convention on Human Rights on the basis of the political persecution to which I have been subjected and continuing violation of my human rights.”Jho Low
He still hasn’t disclosed his physical location, but as of 2020 it is highly suspected that he is in hiding in China.
4. Jerry Jacobson & McDonald’s Monopoly
Jerry Jacobson is an ex-cop turned head of security that ran a McDonald’s Monopoly game scam for more than ten years (1989-2001). McMillion$ is a documentary mini-series that detailed the scam of Jerry and his accomplices, many of whom are relatives and friends.
You can watch the documentary on HBO.
The documentary had tons of twists and turns–which made it such a delightful watch. It even had connections to the mafia! At the end of the mini-series, it was finally revealed how the mastermind was able to pull off his grand scheme of 11 years.
Jerry Jacobson was able to embezzle 24 million US dollars from McDonalds by corrupting the game to rightful winners.
The scam was eventually uncovered by a tip. The FBI led an investigation, where Jerry Jacobson and 8 conspirators were convicted and sent to prison.
White Collar Crime TV, Movie, Books, Podcasts
The rest of the world is just as obsessed with white-collar crime. There are plenty of content in popular culture that center on white-collar crime!
Our favorite white collar crime TV series and movies (links you to Netflix or HBO)
- Rotten – TV series that feature problems in food and its supply chain
- Dirty Money – TV series that focus on corporate corruption, fraud, and creative accounting
- McMillion$ – about the McDonalds Monopoly scam (HBO)
- The Inventor – Elizabeth Holmes Documentary
- Fyre – Billy McFarland’s Fyre Festival Disaster
Our favorite white collar crime movies (links you directly to Netflix or if not available on Netflix, on Amazon)
- The Laundromat
- The Big Short – One of my favorite movies! Please comment below if you can recommend me similar movies like these.
- The Wolf of Wall Street
- Inside Job
- Billions (S1)
- The Kleptocrats
Check these Podcasts that feature some of our favorite white-collar criminals
Books on White Collar Crime (links to Amazon)
- Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright – about Jho Low and the 1MDB Scandal
- Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal by Eugene Soltes
- Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart
- Too Big to Fail
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