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Masquerading As the Unseen

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"You can recognize him because he's got a mask on? You recognize him because you don't know who he is?
Granny Weatherwax, Maskerade

Masquerading as the Unseen is a form of deception based around the idea of disguising yourself as a person whose true identity is unknown to anyone. Either the person regularly wears a mask, he is highly reclusive, it's not widely known what he looks like or he simply doesn't exist. As a result, you can don his mask or otherwise claim to be this person, and all but maybe a select few will be unaware of the deception.

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This can have a few purposes. One example would be damaging his reputation by committing dastardly deeds in his costume as a Frame-Up, or taking control of an organization the Unseen ran without raising suspicion from subordinates because No One Sees the Boss. A more benevolent version is to cover for the secretive character's absence or help conceal his secret identity by having both personas simultaneously seen.

This can also cause some tension in comics when a Legacy Character shows up, donning the same mask and identity as his predecessor. Especially if it's a villain as it will bring to mind the (usually valid) possibility that the original villain is still alive.

This trope is one reason a Collective Identity can succeed, as it allows multiple individuals to assume a single identity while most will assume the secret identity is only one person. It's also easier to pull off in settings that don't have large-scale media franchises, such as television and film. An important individual's appearance is less likely to be well known, necessitating other means to make sure he's recognizable that a would-be impostor can exploit.

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See also The Real Remington Steele, which can overlap with this trope if someone tries to hijack what is believed to be an entirely made-up identity, and Confronting Your Imposter, where someone pulling this trick may fail by having the bad luck to run into the person he's impersonating (likely without even knowing it). Supertrope to Dressing as the Enemy when this is done with Faceless Goons.

Compare Hiding in a Hijab and Mistaken for Special Guest. Contrast Stranger Behind the Mask. Can overlap with Legendary Impostor (con artist impersonates famous person the mark has never met) and Costume Copycat (impostor impersonates costumed hero by assuming the costume). If your character is assuming a disguise that relies on people ignoring them, not failing to recognize them, they may be invoking the trope Beneath Notice.

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Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Naruto
    • In the Chuunin Exam arc the Kazekage, leader of the Hidden Sand Village, is only ever seen from behind a curtain or wearing a mask over his face. His subordinates find nothing odd about this behavior, implying it's normal for him. It's also because of this that Orochimaru is able to kill and later disguise himself as the Kazekage during his attack on the Leaf Village during the Exam.
    • Later in the series we get Tobi, a masked member of Akatsuki who uses Obfuscating Stupidity to come off as a ditz. When he later drops the act, he makes the claim that he is Madara Uchiha, an infamous shinobi who was a contemporary of the First Hokage. Despite the fact Madara is supposed to be dead, Tobi's able to back up his claim enough that nobody can completely rule out that it's him. However, we later learn that "Madara" is really Obito Uchiha, and was using Madara's infamy to further his own goals (it helped that he was also conspiring with the real Madara before his actual death).
    • At one point Yamato disguises himself as Sasori by hiding in a wooden replica of the puppet that Sasori was never seen outside of. However, the people Sasori is meeting know him well enough that they see through Yamato's disguise quickly.
  • In the fifth part of Jojos Bizarre Adventure, the boss of the Passione mob, Diavolo, is heavily paranoid about anyone knowing even the slightest bit of personal information about him. In the side story, Purple Haze Feedback, we learn that following Diavolo's defeat Giorno Giovanna has essentially assumed his identity, behaving as if he's been the boss all along with no one the wiser.
  • Death Note:
    • Early on, L is highly secretive, speaking to the police only through audio and through his servant Watari. This fact is used against Light Yagami by having a man claim to be L to trick Light into murdering him, exposing his general location to L.
    • Light delegates his Kira-duties to others when he is otherwise busy. Detailed analysis exposes this, but to the world at large, it's just the same Kira.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. When the Laughing Man first appeared in public he arranged for his face to be effectively invisible so no one knows what he looks like. In the episode "C: The Other Side of Good and Evil - EQUINOX" the Laughing Man (with his face mostly covered) meets with Ernest Serano and they talk about the conspiracy. At the end of the episode it's revealed that the Laughing Man is actually Major Kusanagi in disguise in order to trick Serano into revealing information.
  • In 20th Century Boys, Friend is a charismatic cult leader and later ruler of the world, whose defining trait is he always wears a mask of some kind. In the second third of the series, we learn Friend's true identity following his death. Soon after, another Friend appears and is following this trope, since only the protagonists know better.
  • Kinnikuman:
    • Terryman tried to do this in the Seven Devil Choujin arc, posing as Kinnikuman, whose face is always masked. He's busted because the Imposter Forgot One Detail: Kinnikuman is right-handed.
    • During the Dream Tag Team Arc, Kinnikuman had no idea that his friend Terryman had taken over the role of his tag-partner, Kinnikuman Great, because Great wore a black version of his own mask. Even when Terry stopped trying to copy Great's fighting style and used his own, Kinnikuman never worked it out until Terry was unmasked.
  • In Locodol, the fact that the mascot character Uogokoro-kun uses a full body costume is used to hire a second actor to wear the suit when the demands for the mascot become too much for his main performer, Yui, to handle alone.
  • Gold in Pokémon Adventures does this when he wears a replica of Guile Hideout's armor in an attempt to trick Guile's pokémon into listening to him instead of the real Guile.
  • In the Medabots anime, Ikke and Koji are expected to represent Japan in an international Robattle tournament alongside Space Medafighter X, but X never turns up for any of the matches. To avoid disqualification, they have their friends dress as X and substitute for him, which works because the only thing anyone knows about Space Medafighter X is that his true identity is a mystery and he always wears a mask.
  • In the Dark Tournament arc of YuYu Hakusho, Team Urameshi are accused of this. One of their allies is a masked fighter whose mask had previously been removed to reveal a young woman. Later, the mask comes off again and we see an elderly woman. This is a subversion because, as the Younger Toguro explains, the young and old women are the same person. Genkai simply possessed (up until that point) the ability to revert to young age in order to fight better.
  • Played with during the final arc of Tiger & Bunny. In it, the Big Bad has erased everyone's memories of Kotetsu Kaburagi, but not of his Secret Identity Wild Tiger. When Kotetsu presses Blue Rose about this, she claims that nobody knows Wild Tiger's identity nor has anyone seen his face. Kotetsu is able to use this to plant a seed of doubt about the situation until an imposter Wild Tiger shows up.
  • Tokyo Ghoul:
    • This happens more than once, due to the habit of Ghouls adopting a Cool Mask to protect their real identities. A decade prior to the series, Yoshimura used their near-identical kagune to impersonate his daughter and throw people off her trail. He continues the ruse into the final chapters of the series, when he is hunted down and defeated by Investigators... and the real Owl shows up to finish off his attackers.
    • A similar case occurs with Ayato adopting Touka's identity as "Rabbit," Taking the Heat for her in the process.

    Comic Books 
  • There was a storyline early in Daredevil where Foggy Nelson claimed he was the Man Without Fear to impress Karen Page. This led to Melvin Potter/the Gladiator targeting him in the belief he really was Daredevil, although Nelson got his DD costume from Potter's costume shop.
  • Spider-Man
    • Many Legacy Character villains trade on the reputation of their predecessors, most notably the various Hobgoblins (which is part of the in-universe explanation for the confusion as to who the original Hobgoblin actually was) and the second and third Mysterios. Roderick Kingsley, the original Hobgoblin, eventually monetised this, creating villain identities, and, after a period of using his super-powers to build a mystique, leasing out those identities to criminals who wanted an instant rep. Before that, he had killed the fourth Hobgoblin for tarnishing the Hobgoblin reputation.
    • His first rogue's gallery villain is The Chameleon. He pretends to be Spider-Man (using a mask on top of his usual mask) in order to frame Spidey for stealing plans for a missile.
    • In another Spider-Man story, Peter Parker comes across a diner where Spider-Man comes in every night and gets free food, because Spider-Man once saved the owner from a robbery. Parker can't call the impostor out on it without giving away his own secret identity.
  • Batman:
    • In older comics, Bruce would sometimes have Superman or even Alfred wear the cowl if he had to be in two places at once. Superman might also ask Bruce Wayne to pose as Clark in similar situations.
    • In the Rebirth era, Batman had Alfred dress up in an old Batman suit to confront a villain. While the villain sees through it instantly, he's in the middle of a mental breakdown, and thus the sight of someone in a Batsuit who is obviously not Batman utterly confuses him. The real Batman shows up soon enough, giving Alfred the chance to pull a Screw This, I'm Out of Here!

    Film 
  • In The Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts is a legendary figure who has been passed from person to person through the years. At the end, Fezzik dresses up and claims to be the "Dwead Piwate Woberts" to scare the castle guards.
  • Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol has Ethan and crew pretending to be arms dealers in order to stop a terrorist with a pretty weird cause. When the Latex Perfection machine malfunctions, the group is forced to do an Indy Ploy and go in unmasked, hoping that whatever contact the terrorist and the dealer have done didn't involved meeting face-to-face. It goes okay, until the terrorist brings out an assassin that gets overtly suspicious at the wrong time.
    • The gimmick is repeated in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, where Ethan attempted to disguise himself as terrorist John Lark in order to meet with the Arms Dealer White Widow and secure some stolen Plutonium cores. During the fight between Ethan and Lark, Ilsa blows up Lark's head, damaging his face to such an extent that it is impossible to create a mask out of it. Ethan meets the White Widow regardless, with the hope that the latter doesn't know what Lark looks like.
  • James Bond:
    • In The Man with the Golden Gun M tells Bond that no one knows what Scaramanga looks like. Later Bond assumes that when Hai Fat hired Scaramanga they never met. He decides to meet Hai Fat while posing as Scaramanga. It turns out Hai Fat had met Scaramanga and knew Bond was an imposter.
    • In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond discovers that Blofeld has been impersonating the reclusive billionaire Willard Whyte, whom Blofeld has abducted, and is using his business empire to help his latest plot.
  • Iron Man 3 has a variation of this with the Mandarin.
  • In Ride Along, Ben pretends to be the mysterious crime lord Omar in an attempt to rescue James. It works up until the real Omar shows up.
  • In the The Usual Suspects, Verbal tells the tale of Keyser Soze, a mysterious crime boss so ruthless he would Shoot the Hostage even when the hostages were his own family. During Verbal's interrogation, we never see him, and he speaks to the main characters through an intermediary. In the movie's finale reveals that Verbal was Keyser Soze all along, inverting the trope by the Unseen Hiding In Plain Sight.
  • In the live-action Mr. Magoo film, Magoo infiltrates a criminal auction for a stolen gem by impersonating Ortega Peru, the rarely-seen "king of the underworld". One other person at the auction has already met Peru (and Magoo for that matter), but she doesn't expose the ruse.
  • In musical comedy Broadway Melody of 1936, Bert has invented a fake French opera diva to screw with Robert, the theatrical producer. Robert falls for it, and desperately seeks the non-existent "Arlette" as the star in his show. After Irene finds out that Arlette is fake, she promptly assumes the identity of Arlette, and gets the lead in Robert's show.

    Literature 
  • In Maskerade, the Opera Ghost, a mysterious masked patron of the Ankh-Morpork opera house, apparently turns nasty and starts attacking people. Granny Weatherwax realizes the truth, and has a few choice words to say about people assuming that every masked man in evening dress who's been sighted in the opera house is the same man.
    Life isn't neat! Whoever said there's only one Ghost?
  • In The Dark Elf Trilogy, a student assumes the identity of a dead teacher. Somewhat subverted in that some people do know the teacher's identity - but his facial features have been wiped out due to a magical accident, so few can tell.
  • In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novel The Big Four, one of the Four is a Master of Disguise. One of those disguises is an old Russian chessmaster, back from the gulags after many years of harsh treatments. The actual guy died in the gulags, the Four are impersonating him to snatch up his huge inheritance.
  • In The Wheel of Time, the Forsaken typically wear a cloak of darkness or similar effect while dealing with their minions, partly for intimidation but also to hide the fact that the minion might recognise whatever prominent figure they're pretending to be. Elayne takes advantage of this in the penultimate book to get information out of one of her captives by pretending to be a displeased mistress. However, her lack of knowledge about certain imminent plans allows the captive to catch on pretty quickly.
  • In one of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories, Wooster tries to pretend he's romance novelist Rosie M. Banks, claiming the Rosie name is a pseudonym. The person he's trying to fool is a fan of Rosie doesn't know what she looks like, allowing the lie to work. Wooster was doing this to help the man's nephew, who wants to get married but needs his uncle's approval. It goes wrong when it turns out the would-be bride actually is Rosie M. Banks. It goes right when this means the uncle approves of the marriage on the basis of his admiration for Rosie.
  • The short story "A Night Among the Nihilists" by Arthur Conan Doyle centers on an ordinary English merchant, who is mistaken for an agent of a terrorist cabal, since the cabal in Solteff, Russia knows only that their agent is an Englishman. He gets taken before their leaders to report on progress of their "secret weapon." Despite knowing nothing about the terrorists or their plans, the good fellow is able to sustain a facade of competency.
  • In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Annabeth distracts Polythemus from her friends by donning her invisibility hat saying she's Nobody, an alias Odysseus used to outsmart the cyclops in ancient times. It works, but then she gets caught, so Percy hides from view and does the same thing.
  • The first Spells, Swords, & Stealth book, NPCs, opens with four people playing a tabletop RPG and proving Too Dumb to Live through the introductory tavern. Within the game's world, the titular NPCs fear what will happen when the adventurers don't show up for their summons with the Mad King. When they see that the royal missive identifies the adventures by class rather than by name, they realize the king has never actually interacted with any of them and decide to take up the quest in their place to protect their home from the king's potential wrath. Ironically, after reaching the palace, they find out that the king has sent out many such summons to adventurers all over his kingdom, so he probably wouldn't have noticed four not being there.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • The First Doctor story "The Daleks' Master Plan" has the Doctor sneaking in to a meeting between the Daleks and their allies by disguising himself as a delegate whose style of clothing was black, face covering robes.
    • In the serial "The Macra Terror", the Controller of the colony the TARDIS team visits is only ever seen as a picture on the video screen. The Doctor's companion, Jamie, eventually calls the colony's visible leaders on the fact that they don't know if it's actually the Controller sending out messages.
  • Murder, She Wrote:
    • In "The Perfect Foil", the tradition of wearing costumes at Mardi Gras allows the killer to frame Cal by wearing a Cyrano de Bergerac costume and imitating his distinctive stutter.
    • In "Trouble in Eden", Jessica decides to pose as Mary Rose, reasoning that the locals will likely tell more to a grieving sister than to a complete outsider. Although Martha, Charlotte's maid, comments that they don't look much alike, most townsfolk seem to buy it. However, when the sheriff investigates the account Jessica told him about what brought her there, he finds out she's not Mary Rose. Luckily, he's willing to play along.
  • The premise of Remington Steele. Steele is an Invented Individual and thus never seen, but when a conman claims to be Steele, the inventor has to play along or else admit that her Remington Steele doesn't exist.
  • Stargate SG-1
    • In "Summit", Daniel Jackson infiltrates a Goa'uld summit by posing as Yu's lo'taur, a human servant who accompanies the Goa'uld in case a new host is needed; his deception is aided by use of the Reol chemical, which infects the mind of an intended person and trick them into seeing whomever or whatever the user says, the drug convincing Yu that Daniel is his usual servant and the rest of the Goa'uld at the summit having never met Daniel before.
    • In "Company of Thieves", when the Odyssey spaceship is stolen by the Lucian Alliance with key members of SG-1 on board, Cameron Mitchell decides to infiltrate the Lucian Alliance by posing as Kefflin, a member of the Alliance who is known for being highly reclusive, Mitchell using the Reol chemical once again to convince the head of the alliance that he is Kefflin and deceiving the rest of the alliance.
  • M*A*S*H. "Tuttle" centers around the Invented Individual Hawkeye creates to send a truckload of supplies to Sister Theresa's orphanage, which eventually leads Hawkeye and Trapper to write up a phony personnel file for him. Later still, in order to mooch some money off the government, Hawkeye poses as Tuttle - in full surgical garb - on the grounds that Tuttle hasn't received pay in fourteen months; he arranges for all of Tuttle's pay to go directly to the orphanage.
  • On GraceLand "Jangles" is the nickname given to a ruthless cartel torturer and assassin whose real identity is only know to a few high ranking cartel leaders. His nickname comes from the fact that he always carries a large keyring with keys he has taken from his victims which jangles when he walks. FBI agent Bassillio uses this to impersonate Jangles in order to get fellow agent Briggs to confess to being a Dirty Cop in the cartel's employ. This backfires since Briggs is not working for the cartel and his illegal activities are actually a trap for Jangles. Briggs kills Bassillio thinking it was Jangles come to kill him.
  • Castle:
    • Beckett does this is the episode "In the Belly of the Beast". She is recruited to infiltrate a drug ring by posing as a low level courier the drug lord has never met. However, it turns out the woman is actually an assassin, not a courier. As the drug ring don't know what she looks like, the impersonation still works but becomes a lot more complicated.
    • It happens the other way in "Driven": Castle and Beckett are looking for clues to Castle's disappearance and meet a man in a trailer who provides vaguely helpful information. Later, when they realize the man might be important, they go back...and another man is there claiming to be that man. Turns out the first man assumed the guy's identity to deflect attention from himself (and may have been the mastermind behind Castle's disappearance).
  • An episode of Lois & Clark deals with a string of murders. Turns out the people killed are the only ones who can recognize a certain eccentric billionaire, and the murderer intends to replace him.
  • In the Moonlighting episode "The Lady in the Iron Mask", a woman wearing a veil and able to speak only in a whisper hires the Blue Moon Detective Agency to find the man who had thrown acid on her face years before. But they eventually figure out that the person who hired them was actually the woman's husband pretending to be her, and by the end of the episode, four different people (the woman, her husband, Maddie, and David) are all dressed as her and chasing each other.
  • Played with in Wiseguy when Vinnie Terranova is framed for being part of a conspiracy to destabilize the Japanese economy with counterfeit yen. The alleged Big Bad is a reclusive billionaire who's never left his secluded hideaway since the Sixties. Those involved in the frame-up assume he'll remain out of sight, but Vinnie's handler heads up there himself and convinces the recluse to come down and expose the plot as a fraud.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959), "Steel". When Maxo breaks down just before the heavyweight match, "Steel" muses that only the manager and his assistant have actually seen himself and Mr. Pole and that the audience hasn't seen a B2 boxing robot in years — meaning they might not know the difference if he disguises himself as Maxo and goes through with the bout.
  • In an episode of Timeless, Flynn jumps to the time of the American Revolution and performs a Kill and Replace on the famed Culper Ring spy Austin Roe, thus allowing him close access to General George Washington. He knew from history that Washington never personally met Roe, so it was easy to claim to be him just by knowing a few tidbits from history. Strangely, his Croatian accent didn't arouse any suspicion from Washington, even though Roe was born in Port Jefferson, New York.

    Theatre 
  • In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon assumes the identity of Jack's fictional brother Ernest so he can visit Jack's country estate and meet his ward Cecily. As the inhabitants of Jack's country estate believe he has a brother called Ernest, but have never met him, they accept the impersonation.

    Video Games 
  • In the Imperial Agent's prologue of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Imperial Intelligence fabricates an identity for Agent to infiltrate a Hutta palace. The identity is that of the Red Blade, an infamous smuggler who always wears a mask and is currently tracked on the other end of the galaxy, so nobody on Hutta can call their bluff. This goes well until the Red Blade himself catches wind of it in the end of the prologue and comes to Hutta in person to deal with the impostor.
  • Standard operating procedure for the Shadow Broker from Mass Effect. Few people in the galaxy are aware of the fact that this office was taken over by means of this trope several times, by various people.
  • This is how in the Gray Cowl of Nocturnal works in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Whoever wears it is known only as the Gray Fox, a legendary master thief, and their real identity is "struck from all records and histories". You can actually talk to someone else while he's wearing the cowl; his own family has forgotten that he exists, and he tries to tell you his real name during the conversation but your character can't remember what it is.
  • This happens in Batman: Arkham Origins when another character masquerades as Black Mask.
  • In Fire Emblem Awakening, a bandit and his gang impersonate Prince Chrom and his Shepherds in order to take control of an island far away from Chrom's country, since the people there likely don't know what the real Chrom looks like. This doesn't explain, however, why Cynthia, the Kid from the Future of one of the women in Chrom's army, would also be completely fooled, even if Chrom is her father. (Some fans chalk this up to The Law of Conservation of Detail, as Ruger shares his portrait with three other Paralogue bosses, suggesting that Ruger might actually resemble Chrom as opposed to relying on trickery and charisma, only the developers didn't feel the need to give the man unique artwork like they did with the "mainline" enemy units.)
  • Ark Thompson of Resident Evil: Survivor was able to infilitrate Sheena Island just by introducing himself to the residents as Vincent Goldman, because Vincent never ventured out in public. Only one character wasn't fooled by this: Lott Klein, who worked as a personal informant for the real Vincent.

    Webcomics 
  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja:
    • McNinja infiltrates King Radical's court as his own rival, Dr. McLuchador. As a Masked Luchador, it's a perfect disguise as no one had ever seen McLuchador's face.
    • The main character and his family practice an inversion of this trope; they're masked at birth so nobody knows their real faces. This allows them to, as a last resort, remove their mask and disappear forever. Although Frans Rayner knows what the good doctor looks like, having seen his unmasked clones.
  • Nigh-every reader of Godslave is convinced that this is what Anpu's doing - pretending to be Anubis while actually being Set, god of chaos and storms. Given how no-one has seen an Egyptian god in at least two thousand years and they have similar themes, it works flawlessly.

    Web Original 
  • Red Panda Adventures
    • "Red Panda: Dead or Alive!" features a Red Panda imposter using the Panda's notoriety to commit crimes and ruin the Panda's reputation. The Panda has to utilize his secret identity and help from an out of town superhero to clear his name.
    • In "Operation: Cold Feet", Kit is flummoxed by reports of the Red Panda's being out fighting crime when she knows perfectly well where the Red Panda has been. The Panda himself is surprisingly unconcerned until he sees a similar report about the Flying Squirrel. The episode reveals that the Red Panda has been having his network of agents posing as him to keep up the Red Panda's presence while he and Kit are away in their honeymoon. He hadn't prepared a fake Flying Squirrel, however. That turns out to be their Kid from the Future, the Red Squirrel, acting on her own initiative.
    • This is the schtick of the Nazi agent Archangel. Whenever the Red Panda and Flying Squirrel think they've captured him it turns out to be a subordinate posing as him and ready to try Taking You with Me. By the fourth or fifth time they just start assuming it's not the real one.

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series:
    • Barbara Gordon got her start as Batgirl initially by impersonating Batman so the Caped Crusader could make an appearance at a charity event in the episode "Shadow of the Bat, Part 1".
    • Another episode has the Joker going around as Batman committing crimes. No one seems to notice that this version of Batman is much skinnier.
  • In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "Knight Time," Superman pretends to be Batman when he visits Gotham and finds out Batman is missing and teams up with Robin (who's in on it) to find him. It helps that Superman has a similar build to Batman and can impersonate Batman's voice.
  • The Batman: In the episode "Bird of Prey," Alfred dresses as Batman and drives off in the Batmobile when Bruce and the Batman need to be seen in the same place. He shows up just in time, too, as a reporter has just voiced her suspicions to Bruce. Later when Bruce talks to Alfred still in the costume, he points out he put it on backwards. Alfred claims he was in a hurry.
  • Alfred again in Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "Triumvirate of Terror!" When Luthor teleports to the Batcave, he doesn't see Bruce's face, but does get a good enough look at him to start working out who has that build and hair colour. Alfred then appears in the costume and claims Luthor is terrorising his janitor.

    Real Life 
  • Craig Wright pretended to be "Satoshi Nakamoto," the mysterious unknown author of Bitcoin. However, his ruse fell through when he refused to provide cryptographic proof that the real Satoshi Nakamoto would be able to provide.

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