"When I looked at the farmer, the little devices I had in my pocket for buncoing the pushed-back brows seemed as hopeless as trying to shake down the Beef Trust with a mittimus and a parlor rifle.

"’Well,’ says he, looking at me close, ‘speak up. I see the left pocket of your coat sags a good deal. Out with the goldbrick first. I’m rather more interested in the bricks than I am in the trick sixty-day notes and the lost silver mine story.’"

There’s a certain class of con games that involves selling something that is not what it seems. The fiddle game involves selling a cheap pawn shop violin as a Stradivarius. Pigeon drops can involve forged lottery tickets or cashier’s checks. The gold coin game is a slight update on selling gold bricks, a con that dates to the 1880s and was tired in O. Henry’s day:

"When I looked at the farmer, the little devices I had in my pocket for buncoing the pushed-back brows seemed as hopeless as trying to shake down the Beef Trust with a mittimus and a parlor rifle.

"’Well,’ says he, looking at me close, ‘speak up. I see the left pocket of your coat sags a good deal. Out with the goldbrick first. I’m rather more interested in the bricks than I am in the trick sixty-day notes and the lost silver mine story.’"

Misrepresentation con games don’t have to involve goods. Charles Ponzi‘s eponymous scheme promised fabulous returns on investments in high-paying Spanish bonds. Ponzi simply used new victims’ money to pay earlier ones long enough to build up his reputation as a trustworthy financier, but the monumental amount of attention he attracted while he was still paying out investors forever associated his name with pyramid schemes. Ponzi eventually turned to selling Florida swampland, a common location for land fraud this century; a great deal of flooded "retirement plots" are now wilderness preserve. Nobody would buy a magic $5 bill machine today, but a miraculous new engine might find takers; Madison Priest‘s physics-defying video device got backing from Intel, after all. And O. Henry’s Ezra was inured to the lure of silver mines; investors in Bre-X, the largest gold fraud in history, might wish they had felt the same way.

But there’s real art to selling something that isn’t even a moneymaking scheme. Diploma mills (link via Widdershins) might not qualify on this front; a college degree is necessary for some jobs (such as deputy CIO for the Department of Homeland Security), so presumably in at least some cases people who turn to Monticello University, Harrington University (the nation’s largest diploma mill), or Bernadean University (in business for forty years) are getting their money’s worth. People who fall victim to a vanity press scam (1, 2) at least have the pride of knowing that they are officially published authors; if they’re dealing with a vanity press that’s not completely fraudulent, they’ll have a few cases of incredibly overpriced books they can press upon their family and friends. Trying to buy a British peerage won’t even get you that:

The sale of British titles is prohibited by the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, 1925. However, misleading advertisements for lordships of manors sometimes appear in the media and on the internet. A manorial lordship is not an aristocratic title, but a semi-extinct form of landed property. Lordship in this sense is a synonym for ownership. According to John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and co-author of The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, "Lordship of this or that manor is no more a title than Landlord of the Dog and Duck." It cannot be stated on a passport, and does not entitle the owner to a coat of arms. Beware also of websites selling completely bogus British titles.

But the absolute ultimate must be selling something which doesn’t even notionally provide any value. The ticket to Heaven seems to have been nothing but a joke, but the service offering to send rapture letters (which does not charge a fee, but solicits donations along with collecting e-mail addresses) is harder to categorize. If you don’t believe in a pre-millenial Rapture, for $5, you can register a star at the International Star Registry; the star’s new name will have absolutely no recognition by anyone else, but you’ll get a nice certificate out of it. And an estate on the moon, despite its Heinleinian charm, is utterly worthless, as the purveyor of fine moon lots apparently gained them by writing a letter to the U.N. declaring himself the moon’s owner. If you believe that will stand up in court — even in the unlikely event people will be travelling into space and settling up rent-paying colonies anytime soon — I’ve got a bridge to sell you.