It always begins the same way: A stranger tells you he needs help. And for this help, you will be handsomely rewarded – more money than you could earn in years, for just a few thousand dollars up front. Perhaps you have bills mounting that you cannot pay. Perhaps your daughter just decided to attend a $40,000-per-year university. Perhaps you are just a greedy fool. And so you respond: “Yes, I can help. What do I need to do?”
I’m talking, of course, about the infamous “Nigerian scam,” a con that has bombarded what seems like every email inbox in existence. It is the quintessential spam message, the first thing many of us think of when we ponder Internet swindles. But this racket is not unique to the digital age. In fact, its roots reach deep into history, beyond the invention of the Internet, of computers, of even the United States.
The first mention of this type of scam, known generally nowadays as an “advanced-fee scam,” is widely believe to date back more than 400 years, to 1588. At the time, the con was known as the “Spanish Prisoner” scam, and it went something like this: The fraudster sends someone a letter that claims to be on behalf of a wealthy aristocrat who is imprisoned under a false name in a Spanish prison. The author of the letter claims that he can bribe the prison guards to let the aristocrat escape, but needs money to pay them. The target of the scam is asked to provide the funds for the jailbreak with the promise that the freed aristocrat will repay the generous nit 10-fold what he puts forth with money hidden away in a buried trunk. According to author Steve Weisman’s Avoiding Scams, the daughter of the aristocrat would sometimes be offered to the victim as well.
The “Spanish Prisoner” scam proved particularly durable. An article from The New York Times published on March 20, 1898 (PDF) notes the return of this particular hustle, which seems to have undergone little evolution in the 300 years since it first appeared in the collective consciousness. The article describes the scam like this:
A man in this country receives a letter from a foreign city … 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…
You know the rest.
The story of this scam was later immortalized in a short story written by legal thriller author Arthur Train in the March 1910 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine, in a short story called – you guessed it – “The Spanish Prisoner.” In 1997, Train’s story was turned into a feature film.
Over the years, the “Spanish Prisoner” scam took on many different names, but the main structure of the scam remained the same – so similar that it’s amazing the human brain has not yet evolved to reject such a scheme.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the “Spanish Prisoner” scam transformed into the “Nigerian” scam we know today. At the beginning of that decade, Nigeria plummeted into political and economic chaos. The new government was ultra-corrupt. And, in 1981, the country’s oil boom fizzled, leaving behind an economy in tatters, and an educated citizenry desperately in need of money. Soon, the cleverest scoundrels amongst them turned to the “Spanish Prisoner,” and made it their own.
First came letters, similar to those sent over the centuries that proceeded it. Letters were soon replaced with faxes, and eventually, the email versions we know all too well today. The standard “Spanish Prisoner” format made way for other variations: Work-from-home scams, save-a-pet scams, romance scams, lottery scams – the sad, sordid list goes on.
While other con-men from other countries – Cˆote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Senegal remain hotbeds of advance-fee fraud to this day – perpetrated the scam, Nigeria was clearly the epicenter. Once the problem became so serious, the country added section “419” to its criminal code to cover fraudulent activities. But the schemes persisted, eventually earning them the name “Nigerian 419” scams.
Today, there are hundreds of variations of the “Nigerian 419” scam, according to websites devoted to their documentation. And, just as they have for hundreds of years, people continue to fall victim to the allure of easy wealth. According to the U.S. government’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, advance-fee scams like “Nigerian 419” were the third most frequent type of online crime reported in the U.S. in 2011 (PDF), with nearly 28,000 related complaints filed with law enforcement that year alone. In total, Internet fraud resulted in Americans losing roughly $485.3 million in 2011.
But why? Why has a scheme that is so clearly a scheme survived more than four centuries? It’s difficult to say conclusively. But it’s safe to assume that naiveté, greed, and foolish dreams of a better life have played their part, all along the way. Or, as the Nigerian Embassy in Washington said years ago, “There would be no 419 scam if there are no greedy, credulous and criminally-minded victims ready to reap where they did not sow.”