Paris, June 20: Identity theft is said to be the world's fastest-growing crime, but in sheer chutzpah there can be few cons to match the story of the fake French minister and his silicone mask.
For two years from late 2015, an individual or individuals impersonating France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, scammed an estimated €80m (£70m; $90m) from wealthy victims including the Aga Khan and the owner of Château Margaux wines, according to a BBC News report on Thursday.
The hustle required targets to believe they were being contacted by Le Drian, who then requested financial help to pay ransoms for journalists being held hostage by Islamists in the Middle East. Since France officially does not pay ransoms to hostage-takers, the fake Le Drian assured payments could not be traced and asked for the funds to be placed in a bank in China.
Many of those approached smelled a rat and rang off.
But, some didn't - enough for it to become one of the most outlandish and successful rackets of recent times.
"Everything about the story is exceptional," said Delphine Meillet, lawyer to Le Drian, who is now France's foreign minister. "They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it!"
Why Jean-Yves Le Drian was chosen has not been fully explained. Presumably the fact that as defence minister he might be in charge of ransom demands was part if it, but another factor may have been his relative obscurity.
Before 2012, Le Drian had been a Socialist politician in Brittany. Someone with a higher international profile would have been harder to carry off.
The case is now under judicial investigation in France, with suspicions centring on a convicted French-Israeli con-artist called Gilbert Chikli.
He is currently in jail in Paris following extradition from Ukraine and faces charges of organised fraud and usurpation of identity.
Chikli, of Tunisian Jewish background, grew up in the working-class Belleville neighbourhood of northeast Paris.