How the Whole ‘Nigerian Prince’ Scam Got Started
Does the following sound familiar to you?
Although I know you only from good references of your honesty, my sad situation compels me to reveal you an important affair in which you can procure a modest fortune saving at the same time that of my darling daughter.
Before being imprisoned here, I was established as a banker in Russia as you will see by the enclosed article about me of many English newspapers which have published my arrest in London.
I beseech you to help me to obtain a sum of 480,000 dollars I have in America and to come here to raise the seizure of my baggage paying to the registrar of the court, the expenses of my trial and recover my portmanteau containing a secret pocket where I have hidden the document indispensable to recover said sum.
As a reward I will give up to you the third part, viz., 160,000 dollars. I cannot receive your answer in the prison, but you must send a cablegram to a person of my confidence who will deliver it to me.
Awaiting your cable to instruct you in all my secret, I am sir,…”
You will likely recognize this highly dubious communication as a ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam email, several of which are likely cluttering up your inbox at this very moment. If so, then you would only be half-right, for this particular scam message actually dates back all the way to 1910. For while unscrupulous foreign scammers luring unwary marks with promises of vast fortunes might seem like a recent phenomenon, this type of confidence trick has been around for quite some time. This is the long and shady history of the Spanish Prisoner swindle, the original Nigerian Prince scam.
Like its more famous descendant, the Spanish Prisoner was a type of advance-fee scam, in which the con artist convinces the mark to hand over a smaller sum of money with the promise of eventually receiving a much larger sum. There are countless variations of this basic con, the simplest of which is the “pigeon drop” or “Spanish handkerchief.” In this con, the con artist and a compatriot trick their mark into stumbling upon a large sum of supposedly lost money. They then convince the mark that they can all claim equal shares of the money if they each put up some of their own money as a show of good faith. Once the mark has handed over their money, the con artists hand them an envelope containing their share of the found money and depart. The envelope, of course, contains nothing but shredded paper or other worthless material, and by the time the mark discovers this, the con artists are long gone. This classic scam was famously portrayed in the opening of the 1973 film The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
Another common variant of the advance-fee scam is the so-called “black money” or “wash wash” con. In this scam, the con artist, posing as a corrupt businessperson or government official, approaches the mark with a large number of banknotes which have been stained by ink in a robbery or dyed black to smuggle them through customs, rendering them worthless. Thankfully, the con artist has discovered a mixture of chemicals which can wash the bills clean, and proceeds to demonstrate by using a small vial of said mixture to clean a sample bill. Unfortunately, the con artist informs the mark, they have run out of cleaning chemicals, but if the mark advances them the money needed to buy more, they will agree to share a portion of the cleaned bills. In reality, the supposedly “stained” bills are nothing more than banknote-sized pieces of black construction paper, while the sample bill has been treated with a chemicals that turn colourless when combined, such as Iodine and Vitamin C. And once the mark hands over their money, neither it nor the stained bills are ever seen again. While typically a street-level con, the black-money scam has been committed on an international scale to surprisingly great effect. In March 2004, the BBC reported the arrest of Monsuro Adeko, a Nigerian fraudster who used the black money scam to swindle three prominent businessmen in the United States, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands out of some $4.3 million dollars.
The Spanish Prisoner scam, by contrast, was always carried out by correspondence, though the setup was no less elaborate. In a typical Spanish Prisoner letter, the scammer claims to be a wealthy foreign nobleman imprisoned for political reasons. They go on to reveal that they are in possession of a vast fortune, but are unable to access it on account of being imprisoned. But if the mark forwards them a small sum in advance, they will be able to bribe their way out of prison, recover the fortune, and smuggle themselves out of the country, whereupon they will share a large portion of said fortune with the mark as a show of gratitude. In many cases the scammer further claims to be a distant relative of the mark, while in others they are unable to reveal their true identity for fear of repercussions and are corresponding through a trusted associate. This excuse is used to explain why the letter’s return address is a regular house or apartment and not a prison. Most letters also include deliberately misspelled words or “foreign” turns of phrase, adding further credibility to the scammer’s story. But sometimes scammers would get rather carried away, straying far beyond the basic Spanish Prisoner setup and into the realm of convoluted absurdity. For example, in one 1898 letter, the scammer claims to have buried $130,000 in bank notes near the mark’s home. However, the exact location of said fortune is hidden in a trunk belonging to his daughter, who is in turn being held hostage by a “hard-hearted schoolmistress” who refuses to release her until her room and board was paid. The scammer therefore requests from the mark the money required to pay the schoolmistress to release his daughter to obtain the trunk to find the location of the buried money. Sounds legit…
This kind of scam emerged around the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, being first recorded in the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, the first private detective and the father of modern criminology.
In Vidocq’s day the scam was known as “Letters from Jerusalem”, not acquiring its modern name until the Peninsular War of 1807 to 1814. This conflict, in which Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to invade Spain and Portugal, led to widespread political unrest and the arrest and imprisonment of many Spanish aristocrats, lending credibility to the basic premise of the Spanish Prisoner scam. Even at this early date, the basic premise and format of the scam were already well-established, with the example cited by Vidocq reading, in part: “I beg to know if I cannot, through your aid, obtain the casket in question [of 16,000 Francs in gold and diamonds] and get a portion of the money which it contains. I could then supply my immediate necessities and pay my counsel, who dictates this and assures me that by some presents, I could extricate myself from this affair.”
While such letters, like the modern Nigerian Prince emails, would not have fooled the vast majority of recipients, it only took a handful of marks taking the bait for the scammer to get a worthwhile return on their investment. And while it is impossible to know just how many people were taken in by such scams, they were successful enough to stick around for the remainder of the century, with the next major wave of scam letters arriving in the late 1890s and early 1900s during the Spanish-American War. The letters were apparently such a problem than in 1898 the The New York Times ran an extensive article on the phenomenon, warning readers that: “The letter is written on thin, blue, cross-lined paper, such as is used for foreign letters, and is written as fairly well-educated foreigners write English, with a word misspelled here and there, and an occasional foreign idiom. The writer is always in jail because of some political offense. He always has some large sum of money hid, and is invariably anxious that it should be recovered and used to take care of his young and helpless daughter by some honest man. He knows of the prudence and good character of the recipient of the letter through a mutual friend, whom he does not mention for reasons of caution, and appeals to him in time of extremity for help. He is willing to give one-third of the concealed fortune to the man who will recover it, remove the daughter to this country, and see that what is left is managed for her benefit.”
Notably, the article reveals that scammers had kept up with changing technology and begun to incorporate telegrams and wire money transfers into schemes, writing that: “The use of the cable and the location of the buried treasure near the home of the recipient of the letter are new features. The swindle used to be worked entirely by mail, and the treasure was always on some convenient island or somewhere in Florida.”
As science journalist Charles Siefe writes in his 2015 book Virtual Unreality: “When The New York Times warns readers about a scam, you know that a lot of money has already been lost. And when the paper decided that it had to sound a public alert about the ‘Spanish Prisoner’ game, it did so because the swindle was likely one of the most successful frauds ever known.”
Indeed, Spanish Prisoner letters would remain a persistent problem for decades to come, with the example quoted at the start of the video appearing in a 1910 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, amusingly titled “Postal Inspector Warns People To Beware of Hoary-Whiskered Spanish Appeals.” The article reads: “The attention of M.C. Fosnes, post-office inspector, has been called to an influx of fraud letters from Spain to persons in the Twin Cities and he believes that whoever is operating the hoax is receiving some returns from this territory and warns the public not to “bite” at the alluring bait. The letters have been many and the Spanish person is apparently untiring in his efforts in Minnesota. Many of the letters have been sent to the inspector…Mr. Fosnes, in warning the public, says: “Instead of the writer being a wealthy party in temporary distress, he is a miserable Spanish scoundrel who very likely has been in jail many times. There may be a number of scoundrels working the same line of graft. Every dollar sent to Spain or sent for cablegrams is a tribute to rascality. Better throw the money into the Mississippi river.”
And as the times changed, the scammers changed right along with them, and by the First World War the majority of scammers claimed to be not from Spain, but rather Russia. In 1917 the Russian Revolution toppled the Imperial Government, resulting in large numbers of Russian nobles being imprisoned or exiled. This once again leant the scammers’ stories of lost fortunes a useful veneer of plausibility. Evolving communications technology also provided enterprising scammers with ever more opportunities. While for 200 years the Spanish Prisoner scam had been perpetrated via regular mail and occasionally telegram, the development of fax machines and later the internet in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s allowed scammers to reach large numbers of potential marks far more easily – and cheaply – than ever before.
By this time the hub of advance-fee scams had moved from Spain and Russia to West African countries such as Ivory Coast, Togo, and – most famously – Nigeria, leading to this type of scam becoming widely known as the “Nigerian Prince” or “419” scam, after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud. But while this scam has become inextricably associated with West Africa, many other nations are known to have a high incidence of advance-fee fraud, including Jamaica, Spain, the Netherlands, and Poland.
Like their Spanish Prisoner ancestors, the stereotypical 419 scammer claims to be a member of the Nigerian Royal Family, cut off from their fortune and requiring only a relatively small sum of money in order to access vast riches. However, it is worth noting that Nigeria does not have – nor has it never had – a Royal Family, and that the nobility the nation does possess have not held any formal political power for over 60 years. The nation known today as Nigeria was cobbled together by the British Empire in the late 1870s from various tribal territories including the Igbo, Hausa, Oyo, and Benin Empires – each having their own traditional leaders. During the colonial era, British administrators ruled the colony by proxy via these various regional leaders, though no single group was allowed to gain influence over the entire territory. And following Nigeria’s independence from the British Empire in 1960, the new nation went through alternating periods of military and democratic rule, during which the formal political power of the traditional rulers all but disappeared. Nonetheless, many traditional rulers continue to hold significant political and economic influence in the country, lending at least a shred of credibility to the ‘Nigerian Prince’ emails. Still, one would think that in today’s savvier, more connected world, such comically absurd stories would be even less likely to be believed than they were 100 years ago. Yet according to analysts like Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley, this very absurdity may in fact be an unlikely key to the scam’s enduring success: “By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select.”
Another key factor is the sheer volume of messages a scammer can send via email compared to more traditional means like letter mail or fax. For now as in the 1790s, while the vast majority of messages are likely to be ignored, it takes only a handful of suckers for a scammer to strike it rich. And strike it rich they have. In 2018, 419-type scams are estimated to have cost U.S. citizens of some $700,000, while one wealthy British victim was conned into shelling out nearly $15 million. In 2016, Interpol and the Nigerian Police Special Fraud Unit arrested a Nigerian scam kingpin known only as “Mike,” whose global scam network is alleged to have hauled in nearly $60 million in ill-gotten gains. And just as the fraudsters of the past made the leap from traditional mail to telegrams, faxes, and email, modern scammers are likewise evolving with the times and developing ever more sophisticated scams. One increasingly popular variation on the traditional 419 scam is the so-called “CEO scam,” in which the scammer impersonates the CEO of a company and demands that employees immediately remit various invoices to the company’s head office. Any funds sent by obedient subordinates wind up, of course, in the scammer’s pocket. This basic premise was taken to absurd lengths in 2015 when French-Israeli con artist Gilbert Chikli succeeded in impersonating French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. In one of the most brazen and outlandish frauds in history, Chikli, wearing a custom-made silicone Le Drian mask and sitting in a recreated French government office, contacted various world leaders and wealthy business owners via Skype and asked for help in paying the ransom of French journalists captured by Islamist militants in the Middle East. As France’s official policy is not to pay ransoms, the fake Le Drian requested that the funds be rendered untraceable and deposited in a Chinese bank. While most of the recipients immediately detected the fraud, a few, including the Aga Khan and Corinne Mentelopoulos, owner of the Château Margeaux wine estate, did not and paid up, allowing Chikli to walk away with nearly $90 million.
While more traditional 419 scams are a numbers game, relying on sheer volume to get results, modern email scams are increasingly personalized and targeted, taking advantage of the vast amounts of personal data readily available online. Yet for all its apparent crudeness and absurdity, the traditional 419 scam continues to find ready marks, just as the Spanish Prisoner swindle did some 200 years ago – proving that regardless of the era, P.T. Barnum’s maxim holds true: there’s a sucker born every minute.
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