Gilbert Chikli fooled dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of people out of millions of dollars simply by asking them for money over the phone. The Masked Scammer, a French documentary on Netflix, explains how this charming con man weaseled his way into the bank accounts of prominent French citizens and corporations, until he was brought down by one woman who didn’t believe him.
THE MASKED SCAMMER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A telephone rings, and when it’s answered, the voice on the other end says, “Hello, your Highness, how are you?” A quick montage shows a flash of highly confidential documents, as people who have been duped by that disembodied voice on the phone explain how convincing he was.
The Gist: So who was that voice on the phone that tricked everyone at the beginning of the film? Gilbert Chikli, the so-called King of Scams, who extorted over 100 million euros over an extensive career of deception and lies. The tale begins around 2005, when Gilbert meets a woman named Shirley and they become a couple. Gilbert grew up poor in Paris, while Shirley enjoyed living in luxury, which means they both had the same personal goals: to get money. They also shared the same professional values, specifically to get money by any means necessary. So after the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, they devised a scam to prey on people’s vulnerabilities amid a heightened fear of terrorism. Gilbert posed as the CEO of several large corporations, calling people who worked within these organizations’ finance departments to request money transfers under the guise that their company was helping to fund anti-terrorism groups. It sounds wild, the Gilbert and Shirley were so convincing that it worked, dozens of times over. The police eventually traced the calls and raided Shirley’s apartment; she was sentenced to two years in prison, while Gilbert absconded to Israel and evaded the law.
Soon after arriving in Israel, Gilbert – you can’t make this up – meets another woman named Shirly (no “e”). She is referred to in the film as Shirly Number 2, and you better believe that Shirley Number 1 hates her. Gilbert and Shirly 2 get married, and while they live a life of extravagance in Israel, Gilbert continues his scamming on a global scale. He creates a company full of employees tasked with impersonating CEOs, and requesting funds which get rerouted to his various accounts, and it continues to thrive. At this point, Gilbert is a known entity, his name has been splashed across the news and the French police are onto him, the trouble is that their hands are tied now that he’s in Israel. And Gilbert, being the troll that he is, taunts them by giving interviews in the Israeli press, and even calling the French detectives to boast after he completes successful scams.
So where does the “masked” part of the masked scammer come into play? Well, up until 2015 or so, all of Gilbert’s scams were done by phone, but when video calls became a thing, he was emboldened to use them to convince new victims to “donate” to his “counterterrorism” funds. In 2015, Paris was the scene of a series of terrorist attacks. Chikli once again preyed on people during a vulnerable time, posing as the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. He would call his targets, high-ranking members of the elite and religious leaders, over Skype, asking to help pay for things like the ransom for French hostages – all while wearing a custom-made rubber mask designed to look like Le Drian. He swindles millions of euros out of his targets, until he finally called the wrong person, a financial officer named Sophie Grenier, who realized something was amiss, and who was willing to show Chikli that he was not the only master of deception out there. He once again flees, this time to the Ukraine, where he was arrested, extradited to France, and tried for his crimes. He’s currently serving an 11 year prison sentence.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? 2022 really is the year of the scam show, huh? The Masked Scammer is totally in line with shows like Netflix’s The Puppet Master: Hunting The Ultimate Conman and HBO Max’s Generation Hustle, which profiles scammers like Anna Delvey and WeWork’s Adam Neumann.
Our Take: The Masked Scammer is a fascinating film that manages to profile a master thief who uses psychological warfare to extract millions from unsuspecting victims, while also creating a suspenseful narrative about how he was finally brought down by a detail-oriented woman who sensed his deception.
The film features detailed interviews with everyone from Chikli’s wife (Shirly Number 2) to police investigators who trailed him to journalists who interviewed him, and they paint a picture of a mastermind who, despite stealing millions, is also something of a genius that they can’t help but admire. The French police detectives even seem to laugh at the fact that Chikli would taunt them through the years, calling him to invite them to the premiere of the film about his life. His charm and pride were the reason for his success, and ultimately responsible for his downfall.
Chikli’s story never became front-page news in the U.S. but it’s every bit as fascinating as those of Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey. Was he a sociopath or just a great actor? I’m not that good of an armchair psychiatrist to pass on a diagnosis, but whatever you want to call him, he was willing to deceive everyone around him at every turn.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Toward the end of the film – a mere six minutes from the end! – Shirly Number 2 explains that she was approached by a journalist on the day of Chikli’s sentencing and shes was asked why she was crying. When she tells the journalist that she’s Chikli’s wife, the journalist tells her, uh, no you’re not, this other woman over here is his wife.
Um! This is an aspect of the story I need so much more information about, but all we learn is that while he was in the Ukraine, Gilbert met and apparently married another woman.
Shirly Number 2 realized that she was just another one of Gilbert’s scam victims, and in the epilogue to the film, we see a “where are they now” of all the major players who appeared throughout the documentary. You’ll be happy to know that Shirly Number 2 asked for a divorce and is now a DJ.
Sleeper Star: Shirley Number 1 is incredible. While Gilbert might be the scammer we’re focused on here, he’s mysterious and chameleon-like, looking like an average guy. Shirley is the person who looks like she’s a scammer. She has wild black hair and wears her dark sunglasses indoors that she pulls down to wink at the camera. She says things to the production crew like, “Make me look tanned. And thin. Make me thinner,” and explains, “I don’t get out of bed unless there’s money.” She’s everything you want in a film like this.
Most Pilot-y Line: “In my mind, I wasn’t a scammer. I was a person who managed to convince, that’s all.”
Our Call: STREAM IT! What a ride! While stealing from the rich can easily be viewed as a victimless crime, the film is very clear to point out that the real victims are the people on the other end of the phone line, the middle managers who thought they were just doing their jobs and had their lives turned upside down in the aftermath of Gilbert’s cons. Those consequences are devastating. But the film’s examination of Chikli’s persistence, his convincing charm, and his ambitions to scale up his crimes is wildly entertaining and is the definition of a real story you just can’t make up.