An impostor or imposter 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.

Notable impostors


Exotic impostors

Royal impostors

Academic impostors

  • 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"

Multiple impostors

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.

Military impostors


In Fiction



See also

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