The new book “Virtual Unreality” by Charles Seife — which deals with how to detect lies online — has an interesting insight on the origins of those absurd scams from Nigerians asking for relatively small sums money in exchange for larger returns you’ll supposedly get later.
These scams are the modern iteration of the classic “Spanish Prisoner” scam that goes back hundreds of years. By 1898, Seife writes, the scams were so ubiquitous that The New York Times was warning its readers about them.
“When The New York Times warns readers about a scam, you know that a lot of money has already been lost,” Seife wrote. “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.”
In that scam, a fraudster tells a victim he’s in prison and has a large amount of money he can’t get his hands on. The fraudster then asks the victim for a smaller sum of money to access the cash. In return, the fraudster says, the victim will be get a handsome reward. That reward obviously never comes.
Thanks to The Times’ digital archives, we can get a good idea of what the Nigerian email scam of the pre-digital age looked like. Here’s how The Times described the fraud back in 1898:
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 offence.
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.
In one instance, a “well-known railroad man” in a New Jersey village got a letter from a guy in Barcelona who claimed he had $US130,000 worth of French bank notes buried near the railroad man’s home. However, the exact directions to the burial site with the cash were hidden in a trunk in his daughter’s possession. And a “hard-hearted boarding school mistress” was holding her captive until somebody could pay her board. That railroad man was asked to send a cable to Spain if he could come up with the cash.
“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 Times wrote. “The swindle used to be worked entirely by mail, and the treasure was always on some convenient island or somewhere in Florida.”
More than 100 years later, the Spanish fraud scheme has many new features, but its basic premise remains the same.