Geek Trivia

What Con Was The Precursor To The Modern Nigerian Email Scam?

The Brooklyn Bridge Sale
The Watch Swap
The Spanish Prisoner Con
The Flim-Flam Bam
The Death Of Which Prominent Scientist Led To A Ban On Scientists Enlisting?
Black and white photograph of the interior of an old jail cell
Patrick Feller/Wikimedia

Answer: The Spanish Prisoner Con

One of the most prevalent cons around is the Nigerian email scam. Essentially an advanced-fee fraud, the con man promises the email recipient access to the vast fortunes of a wealthy man, royalty, or foreign company if only the recipient can put up some money to help said wealthy man, royal, or company out of some terrible bind.

Although the global network of communications and money-transfer system that drives the Nigerian scam is a thoroughly modern invention, the con itself has roots all the way back to the 1890s. The original con relied on the con man approaching a victim and convincing them that their wealthy colleague had been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. In order to avoid embarrassment, the colleague required a person, not related to his family or social group, to help bail him out of prison. In exchange, just like in the modern version, the victim who put up the money would be greatly compensated for his assistance. The con relied on a combination of face-to-face and mail-based interactions and would be dragged out for as long as the victim was willing to put more money up to help the fictitious Spanish prisoner.

Whether in the 19th or 21st century, the allure of spending a little money to get a lot of money as a reward has always been far too tempting for many people to resist. The amount of money lost to the Nigerian scam, the con-family child of the the Spanish Prisoner Con, is staggering. In 2006, for example, research in the United States and the United Kingdom revealed that roughly 200 million dollars and 150 million pounds, respectively, had been lost to scammers using internet-based advanced-fee scams.