Great Scams in History, Startup

Startup: The Great Oil Sniffer Scam

This tip was sent to us by the legendary Tim “No Bloody Apostrophe” Odell of Hooniverse fame. It involves an oil company, a photocopier, and  $150 million in pilfered cash.

It all started out with the invention of a desalinization process that didn’t work. The Belgian Count Alain de Villegas invested in the work of an Italian inventor, Aldo Bonassoli, who had claimed to have developed a process for purifying vast quantities of sea water into drinking water. When the concept was tested, after much experimentation, it was proven to be a dismal failure. The two apparently enjoyed one another’s company so much, however, that they decided to shift their focus to searching for drinking water, rather than creating it.

Their concept was quite elaborate, and somehow involved mythical “gravity waves”, which, while technically not fictional, are useless for attempting to locate underground water. When the 1970s oil crisis hit, these two con men entrepreneurs con men saw an opportunity, and began to pitch their machine to companies wanting to search for alternative sources for oil, rather than water.

The machine was described as looking like a bunch of equipment attached to a photocopier; in fact, that is exactly what it turned out to be: a  bunch of equipment attached to a photocopier. Bonassoli was taking existing geographical scans, re-creating them by hand, loading them into the photocopier, and presenting the resulting paper as the machine’s results. The French oil company ELF invested heavily in their technology, and because the inventors claimed their technology was extremely advanced, and therefore very secret, the executives never questioned that nobody was allowed to examine the equipment. The creators claimed that a scientist who took too close a look might be able to reverse-engineer it, and then steal their idea and make millions for themselves. The executives, it seems, nodded thoughtfully, and took them at their word.

The whole scam was revealed when it was proven that the machine could not even identify a metal ruler through a piece of drywall. The machine cranked out an image of the ruler, long and rectangular, but the individual testing it had bent the test piece into an L-shape.

The perpetrators were eventually arrested, but not before ELF had lost over $150,000,000 to the scam. All because a group of people were afraid to admit how little they knew about technology.

Bet there’s never been another instance of that happening.