When they claimed to be Guggenheims, the 718 area code should have been a dead giveaway.
Three con artists posed as members of the famed New York family in a scheme to fleece millions from investors, including Coca-Cola executives and even the Bushes, federal prosecutors said yesterday.
A woman calling herself "Lady" Catarina Pietra Toumei passed herself off as a countess -- and said she was "married to the actor who played the character 'Cliff Clavin' on the television show 'Cheers,' " to try and dupe investors, feds say.
Catarina Toumei was, in fact, once engaged to "Cheers" actor John Ratzenberger."Mr. Ratzenberger had a short-lived relationship with Ms. Toumei, almost two years prior to this complaint. He is unaware of this alleged criminal activity and is saddened that her life has taken this turn," said the actor's publicist, Diane McNamara.
Toumei told potential victims she was brokering deals on behalf of the fictitious "Guggenheim Fund" and "Guggenheim Bank," according to fraud charges filed in Manhattan federal court. But her connection to the real Guggenheims seems limited to her following their museum on Twitter.
Meanwhile, her two alleged cohorts, David Birnbaum, 67, of Brooklyn, and Vladimir Zuravel, 45, of Queens, posed as "David B. Guggenheim" and "Vladimir Z. Guggenheim" to help dupe investors into a slew of phony precious-commodity deals, the complaint states.
The pair of "Guggenheims" made calls to potential investors from their own area-code 718 and 347 phone numbers.
Their victims were offered the chance to participate in the $1 billion sale of diamonds "from the private collection of the Guggenheim family," a $4 billion sale of crude oil from China, and a venture to distribute "Guggenheim Vodka," the feds say.
Both Birnbaum and Zuravel were arrested yesterday on wire-fraud charges, but Toumei, 45, of California, remains at large. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison.
None of the three victims cooperating with prosecutors actually paid the alleged grifters a cent, officials said.
After the two men were released on bond yesterday, Zuravel insisted his "adopted father" was, in fact, a Guggenheim.
"He is real Guggenheim," Zuravel said. "This is a person who controls a billion, trillion dollars. He's very rich, trust me."
The real Guggenheims are suing the con artists for allegedly using the family's good name to dupe investors.
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