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A captain stood before the soldiers who were about to leave the post where they had finished their guard duty. He said, “There is a order from the Kaiser.” He ordered the troops to Kopenick, a city on the outskirts of Berlin. The soldiers, well trained in following orders from officers, had no reason to doubt that the man was really an army captain. After marching the men into the city hall with bayonets glittering, the captain ordered the doors closed and called for the mayor. He tried to open the safe in the city hall where a large amount of money was kept, but the person entrusted with the key was off duty at the time. So the captain took all the money under a counter, left a receipt for it and disappeared into a train station nearby.
That was the “Captain Kopenick scandal” that stirred Germany in December 1906. The name of the fake captain was Wilhelm Voigt. Though his purported occupation was shoemaker, his real job was swindling, and he spent half his life in jail. Though he was 57, an age not appropriate to a soldier, everyone was defrauded by the power of the uniform he wore. Newspapers satirized the scandal, saying that all the people of the country prostrated themselves, from a cabinet minister to a doorman, before the power of a uniform.
The story of the swindler who took advantage of the atmosphere of German society at the time has been kept alive in motion pictures and plays. German encyclopedias explain the Kopenick scandal as a fraud possible because of a great respect for authority.
Though not as bold as Herr Voigt, in Korea a swindler who disguised himself as a Blue House official using a watch and necktie with a presidential crest was arrested. He also tried to swindle with help of the power of authority.
The number of frauds increases when the economy is depressed. In Korea the number of such reported crimes hit a record of 207,000 in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis. The number dropped to 150,000 in 2000, but rose again to 183,000 last year.
In recent days, a television drama about a swindler has started to air, seemingly a reflection of our society. The movie “The Sting,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, described crimes of fraud as an art. I am worried that the new drama that focuses on the humanity of a swindler could promote the crime.

by Lee Se-jung

The writer is a deputy business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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