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October 28, 2013 8:50 AM   Subscribe

A brief history of the Spanish prisoner scam.
posted by Chrysostom (24 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
A few years ago I briefly worked on a study for the IMF or World Bank or somebody that involved a brief survey sent to upper-level officials at the treasuries/finance ministries of something like 190 countries. My research-assistant job was just to monitor the email account set up to receive the completed questionnaires, responding to any questions and downloading the filled-out documents.

Which means that I have been emailed by the Nigerian Minister of Finance and I can say with reasonable certainty that it was actually him.
posted by theodolite at 9:26 AM on October 28, 2013 [31 favorites]


See also the fantastic eponymous Mamet film.
posted by lalochezia at 9:32 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love that many of these were caught by sending the letter addressed to the wrong person -- as still happens today. "Clever" crooks being done in by a careless error - timeless.

I also love this sentence:

The past is filled with Manti Te’os, and many of them suffered fates much worse than a broken heart and declining NFL draft stock.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:34 AM on October 28, 2013


A lazy variation of this is the 'distressed grandchild' scam, in which the crook phones an elderly person, pretending to be their grandchild and in trouble, often in jail in a foreign country. I recently had to reassure my mother that my son was not in jail in Mexico, and that she did not need to wire any money to the man "my son" handed the phone to. The imposter had of course told her not to tell me, because I'd be mad. I was mad. My mom is 98, and the vermin perpetrating the scam were out of luck, since she does not know how to wire money.

Please warn your elderly relatives about these scams.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:36 AM on October 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Charlie Stross wrote extensively about the Spanish Prisoner scam in Neptune's Brood. It was really interesting, I'd no idea this sort of thing had been going on for so long.

Now, off to RTFA!
posted by Mister_A at 9:46 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lazy variation of this is the 'distressed grandchild' scam, in which the crook phones an elderly person, pretending to be their grandchild and in trouble,

I have a friend who was long estranged from his mom (for very good reasons). At some point, the old lady actually had her long-lost "niece" move in with her and become her defacto guardian, working all manner of profitable scams. Things only got exposed when niece got extra greedy and tried to sell a property (worth well over a hundred of thousand of dollars). But last I heard, she hadn't been arrested or anything, just slipped away ... no doubt looking for her next lonely old lady (or man).
posted by philip-random at 9:55 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you enjoyed this sort of thing, there's a book from 1940 that really goes into it and the lingo that I quite enjoyed.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:56 AM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I sit now in a cell within a modernist dungeon known as a ‘library,’ imprisoned after failing to heed common sense and attending graduate school in the humanities.

Heh. Not that I'd be inclined to pay, but I can relate.
posted by headnsouth at 10:00 AM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


One thing that strikes me from the essay is "What is remarkable about these letters from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is their level of craftsmanship". Contemporary Spanish Prisoner scams are typically not well crafted; bad English, implausible stories, etc. There's a theory that the crappy language is on purpose, that it's a way of weeding out educated/intelligent people from potential marks stupid or vulnerable enough to fall for your scam. I wonder if that's an adaptation to the economics of email spam. In the 19th century was difficult and expensive to send a letter to a potential victim, so you'd pick him carefully and craft the letter deliberately. Now it's easier to spray a million sloppy letters in the hope one finds the mark.
posted by Nelson at 10:08 AM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


> "See also the fantastic eponymous Mamet film."

Huh. Oddly enough, I don't recall "The Spanish Prisoner" actually involving the Spanish Prisoner scam.
posted by kyrademon at 10:18 AM on October 28, 2013


The Spanish Prisoner scam is referenced in the film but the con perpetrated by its villains isn't the Spanish prisoner scam. I think the reference is meant to be misdirection.
posted by wabbittwax at 10:24 AM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


One sometimes hears that there are only a dozen or so plots in all literature.I have heard the same thing said of cons; there are only a few basic forms of them, which are then decorated or embellished to suit new opportunities for their use.
posted by thelonius at 10:32 AM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nelson: There's a theory that the crappy language is on purpose, that it's a way of weeding out educated/intelligent people from potential marks stupid or vulnerable enough to fall for your scam.

They aren't hoping to find a mark: "by sending an email that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select." Otherwise, I imagine you are correct regarding the shift of focus based on the economics of sending messages.


Kirth Gerson: Please warn your elderly relatives about these scams.

I used to be a public agency representative responsible for addressing community concerns for a certain community, so I'd go to public meetings once a month. The local police would also attend these meetings, providing the monthly crime report, and warning folks about the most recent scams that have been reported in the area. I always thought of those in attendance as being sharp enough to smell the scams that were being described, but I would always see a few older folks nodding along thoughtfully, as if they could see how someone could fall for the current ploy. Their trust and naiveté are their downfall.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


One sometimes hears that there are only a dozen or so plots in all literature.I have heard the same thing said of cons; there are only a few basic forms of them, which are then decorated or embellished to suit new opportunities for their use.

ZA HAVE FIRE. ZA GIVE YOU TORCH IF YOU SEND ZA SKINS AND MEAT. ZA THANK YOU.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:23 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is something weirdly comforting in knowing that this stuff went on in time periods we mistakenly look back on as simpler/more innocent. If "the good old days" that I remember followed those stories of criminals and scam artists, then there's hope for good to follow the mess we've mired ourselves in now.

Then again, I put a table out to the curb last night with a "free" sign on it, and some tool took three of its legs just for shits and giggles. It was a sturdy table, and free. A lot of people could have used it.
posted by headnsouth at 11:23 AM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Regarding Mamet's film, I still wonder who's in on the scam (spoiler warning).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:24 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


One sometimes hears that there are only a dozen or so plots in all literature.I have heard the same thing said of cons; there are only a few basic forms of them, which are then decorated or embellished to suit new opportunities for their use.

Hence the dense conversations the characters in the recent Ocean's 11 movies have about their heists: Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever. Those may or may not be actual nicknames for heist maneuvers/skills, but they support the idea that there's only so many tricks in any given bag and that it's how you put them together and play them out that counts.
posted by carsonb at 11:49 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great article. And one of the better book pitches I've seen— I was totally willing to offer him a contract to hear the rest of the stories alas I am not a publisher.
posted by carsonb at 12:05 PM on October 28, 2013


I guess sentimentality might have been a draw to some, but I'm betting that avarice was the dominant motivation for most of the responses. It plays to our fantasies: the genie in the bottle, finding the suitcase full of money along side the road, pulling the one-armed bandits handle at the right time, stumbling upon the garbage bags full of weed on a desert road. The Tooth Fairy. Santa Claus.

Good fiction gets you to nodding your head before it starts with the Star Trek science. When I was on the road, trying to sell encyclopedias (a job that lasted about three months) we were trained with a boiler-plate spiel that helped us qualify the folks whose doors we knocked on. The boiler-plate paragraphs were a decision tree that met resistance with quick answers, while letting us continue on toward our objective: closing the sale. The routine worked on certain people, not on others. One trait my customers had in common was civility. I believe that honest, civil people are not as willing to think badly of people as others. Mine was a legitimate job--the books were delivered, along with the trappings. The trick was to get folks to spend $500 dollars for the books....easy monthly payments on the one hand, and a valuable research system (for the kids) on the other. If you are willing to spend 11 cents a day on cigarettes, wouldn't you spend that much on valuable books? This approach combined a couple of layers of sentimentality with practicality.

My sales pitch used the same tactics as the Spanish Prisoner scam. The difference, the product, is what lets the individual's proclivity do the selling. Decency may inspire you buy books for your kids, but it will be avarice which inspires you help the Nigerian Finance Minister recover his 64 brazilian dollars for a paltry 25%. For the sentimental, I suppose helping the nice man recover his money would be reward enough in itself. Sure it will. If you believe that, drop me a line: I've got a bridge in Arizona you'd just love to have--I'll even ship it to you for no extra charge, and reassemble it over the river of your choice. The toll you can charge will return your meager investment a hundred times every week. But hurry, because my mother needs that operation soon. Soon. You can check me out at my website: (kittensandbabyducks.org) click as many times as you can. When I get a million likes the hospital will drop the anesthesiological fee.

My notion is that we edit our willingness to believe something in accordance with our desire to obtain its payoff. I guess the obverse reaction would be to ignore the prospect of getting warts if the frog might actually turn into a prince, so we just pucker up and give him a big smack, and if it's a part of the deal, we smile and tell him how good it was for us, too. Either way, we don't care as much about how the frog feels as we do about what we'll get out of it.

Although I think some version of these fantasies are common to us all, I am baffled by the way people who are otherwise clever can be sucked into stuff like this.
posted by mule98J at 12:09 PM on October 28, 2013


I think that things that exploit typical psychological weaknesses work just fine on intelligent people, too. The intelligence comes in in recognizing that the whole thing makes no sense, or that something is off about it, or that is too good to be true and therefore it is likely that someone is lying.

Advertising probably works even better on people who think they are too smart to be influenced, even, because they are so massively self-deluded that they actually notice very little.
posted by thelonius at 1:12 PM on October 28, 2013


Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.

They're not actual scams, but IMDB explains the names.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 1:43 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Regarding Mamet's film, I still wonder who's in on the scam (spoiler warning).

I suspect Mamet does as well. Which is one reason why I dislike the movie. Caper stories, to my mind, have to work like, well, clockwork. Left over pieces mean to me that the writer got stuck and couldn't be bothered to work it out and was too far gone to give it over as a bad business.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:30 PM on October 28, 2013


I actually had to hastily call relatives to have them wire money to me in a country without diplomatic relations with the U.S.

I shudder to think what might have happened if they had been like, "we're not falling for your Cuban-Almost-Prisoner swindle you shady creep."
posted by univac at 9:42 PM on October 28, 2013


If it is really you calling home for emergency assistance, it ought to be trivially easy to convince skeptical family members of your bona fides. "Remember that time Uncle Bert thought the hand cream was mayonnaise?"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:31 AM on October 29, 2013


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