is a person who pretends to be somebody else, often to try to gain financial or social advantages through social engineering
, but just as often for purposes of espionage
or law enforcement.
Pretenders to various thrones used to be common. Numerous men claimed they were the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne who disappeared during the French Revolution, and there were three false Dimitris who were serious pretenders to the throne of Russia. Other notable royal pretenders include Perkin Warbeck, Anna Anderson, and, more recently, Robert Brown, who claims to be the son of Princess Margaret and Pete Townshend. The case of Anna Anderson is unusual in that it is believed that her claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia was the work of a third party, as she was not considered to be in sound mind. It also differs from many other impostures in that although hard, irrefutable scientific proof has arisen making her (or the third party's) claim without a doubt false, many still refuse to discount it.
Very daring impostors may pretend to be someone else who really exists, although the rapidity of modern news coverage has made this difficult in the case of notable individuals. Usually, however, impostors simply take on a new and completely fabricated identity, misrepresenting their financial status, educational status, social status, family background and, in some cases, gender. Impostors are usually aware of not being who they say they are. However, there are borderline cases who may end up believing their own tall tales, and some (often children or those suffering from a mental illness such as dementia or schizophrenia, as in the case of Anna Anderson) whose imposture may be the creation of a third party. People may make false claims about their past or background without being full-blown impostors; common false claims include having seen military action and involvement in well-known disasters such as the sinking of the RMS Titanic or the September 11, 2001 attacks. It is sometimes said that if every person who claimed to have "just missed" the Titanic's departure had been on board, the ship would have sunk like a lead weight in Southampton Harbour.
Many temporary impostors are criminals who maintain a façade temporarily to defraud their victims (such as Wilhelm Voigt). Others, such as US prankster Joey Skaggs, commit an imposture as a prank or to make a point of some kind. The latter usually reveal the truth sooner or later. Still others, such as John Howard Griffin, have adopted other identities for purposes of research, investigation or experiment. Although impostors usually misrepresent their backgrounds, their intentions may or may not be criminal as such. They may wish to start afresh with a new identity or "go native"; i.e. adopt the identity and customs of other people. John List is an example of a criminal who adopted a new identity in order to evade justice; in List's case, he was wanted for the mass murder of his entire family, including his three young children.
Women have masqueraded as men to obtain privileges only men can have or to work in male-dominated professions. Some have fought as men; examples are known from the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War.
An organization or individual who has been fooled may keep quiet to avoid embarrassment; this may allow the imposter to evade disclosure.
- Frank Abagnale, who passed bad cheques as a fake pilot, doctor and lawyer.
- Cassie Chadwick, who pretended to be Andrew Carnegie's daughter.
- David Hampton, who pretended to be the son of Sidney Poitier.
- Frederick Emerson Peters, US celebrity impersonator and writer of bad checks.
- James Reavis, who claimed he owned Arizona.
- Christopher Rocancourt, a US fake Rockefeller.
- Tichborne Claimant, claimed to be the missing heir Sir Roger Tichborne.
- Wilhelm Voigt, the "Captain of Köpenick".
- Lobsang Rampa, who claimed to be a deceased Tibetan Lama possessing the body of Cyril Hoskins and wrote a number of books based on that premise.
- Aleksey Vayner, star of the "Impossible Is Nothing" video résumé, who pretended to be the CEO of a capital management company and a charity; to lift 495 lbs.; to serve a tennis ball at 140 mph; and, to break bricks with his hands, in order to gain an entry level job at UBS.
- Anna Anderson, who may have really believed she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
- Alexis Brimeyer, a Belgian who claimed connection to various European royal houses.
- Harry Domela, who pretended to be an heir to the German throne.
- Eugenio Lascorz who claimed connection to the royal house of the Byzantine Empire.
- Eugenia Smith, another woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.
- Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne of England.
- Pierre Plantard, the mastermind behind the Priory of Sion hoax who claimed to be Merovingian, a pretender to the throne of France.
- Charles Stopford, an American man who has claimed to be an English nobleman since 1983, using the name of a dead infant.
- Count Dante is the real name of John Keehan. Many don't recognize his rationale for assuming the title, and allegedly rightful, name of Spanish nobility. In his campaign to promote his system of martial arts, he also claimed victories in various secret deathmatches in Asia, and mercenary activity in Cuba, none of which carried documented proof.
- Mary Carleton who was, amongst other things, a false princess and bigamist.
- Frederick Rolfe, who is better known as Baron Corvo.
- False Dmitriy I, False Dmitriy II and False Dmitriy III, who all impersonated the son of Ivan the Terrible.
- False Margaret, who impersonated the Maid of Norway.
- Marvin Hewitt, who became a university professor without real credentials.
- James Hogue, who most famously entered Princeton University by posing as a self-taught orphan.
- Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions at MIT and a best selling author who claimed advanced degrees in science fields. After ten years in the post, she was revealed to have only a high school diploma.
- Brian MacKinnon, who went back to being a teenager in order to re-enter medical school.
- Azia Kim, who posed as a Stanford University student for eight months, before finally being caught.
People who "went native"
Women who lived as men
Many women in history have presented themselves as men in order to advance in typically male-dominated fields. Not all were transgender
in the current sense. See also: Crossdressing during wartime
- James Barry, who successfully lived as a "male" British military surgeon.
- Frances Clalin, who served in Missouri artillery during the United States Civil War.
- Catalina de Erauso, Basque nun-soldier under Spanish colonial army.
- Dorothy Lawrence, an English journalist who wore uniform during World War I.
- Deborah Sampson, a female soldier during the American War of Independence.
- Mary Anne Talbot, an Englishwoman who became a sailor during the Napoleonic wars.
- Billy Tipton, jazz musician.
- Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who was a Confederate soldier under the name Harry T. Buford.
- Nadezhda Durova, a woman who became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic wars.
- Hua Mulan, who disguised herself as a man to join the Chinese army, when her father was too old for it.
- Joseph A. Cafasso, former Fox News military analyst who claimed to have been a highly-decorated Special Forces soldier and Vietnam War veteran.
- Wes Cooley, a US Congressman who claimed to have fought in the Korean War.
- Brian Dennehy, a famous American actor who claimed to have fought in the Vietnam War.
- George Dupre, who claimed that he had been working for the SOE and the French Resistance during World War II.
- Joseph Ellis, American professor and historian who claimed a tour of duty in the Vietnam War.
- Jesse Macbeth, anti-war activist who claimed to be an Army Ranger ordered to execute innocent civilians in Iraq.
- Alan McIlwraith, a call centre worker from Glasgow who, among other things, claimed that he was a decorated captain in the British Army.
- Micah Wright, an anti-war activist who claimed to be an Army Ranger involved in the United States invasion of Panama, and several other covert operations.
- Storme Aerison, a black man who impersonated blonde, white, high school cheerleaders and supermodels.
- Bampfylde Moore Carew, a Devonshire man whose popular Life and Adventures included picaresque episodes of vagabond life, including his claim to have been elected King of the Beggars.
- Chevalier d'Eon, who lived the second half of his life as a woman.
- Robert Hendy-Freegard, bogus MI5 officer.
- John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin and travelled in the American South as a black man in 1959, to write Black Like Me.
- Pavel Jerdanowitch, father of the Disumbrationist movement.
- Ashida Kim, believed by many to be Caucasian author and self proclaimed ninja Radford Davis (alternate pen name Christopher Hunter), who wrote numerous books on ninjutsu during the '70s and '80s, noted for refusing to provide details about his teachers, or the lineage of the martial art in which he claims expertise.
- Louis de Rougemont, who claimed to be an explorer.
- Steven Jay Russell, who has impersonated judges.
- Treva Throneberry, who became a younger Brianna Stewart.
- Arnaud du Tilh, who took the place of Martin Guerre.
- Binjamin Wilkomirski, a fake Holocaust survivor.
- Enric Marco, who presided over an association of Spanish survivors of the Nazi camps, when in fact he went to Germany to work in the Nazi war industry.