Simanaitis Says

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AS A SimanaitisSays Public Service Announcement, I thought it most appropriate to offer details of classic cons. Three that come to mind are the Nigerian Official, the Spanish Prisoner, and, if we have time, the Russian Agent. I realize that these three are so trite that no one with a lick of sense would fall for such a con today. Yet, there is charm in the history of each one.

My reference works for this research include Leningrad Guide, published by the Leningrad Regional Executive and by the Leningrad Soviet, 1931; Baedeker’s Spain and Portugal Handbook for Travellers, by Karl Baedeker, 1913; and a tattered 1950s National Geographic magazine, cover missing, but with its photographic essay of various Nigerian tribal cultures intact. I performed my usual Internet sleuthing as well. Here’s what I gleaned.

The Nigerian Official. Do you remember the first time you got an e-mail offering lots of money for freeing up a Nigerian official’s millions? Gee, all he requested was a bank account number so he could wire your share of the lolly.

The National Geographic may have provided information to inquisitive preteens, but it made no explicit mention of Nigerian officials with oodles of tied-up cash.

Snopes is an excellent source for details of the Nigerian scam. Snopes cites the Central Bank of Nigeria’s 1991 warning that “swindlers using Nigerian names have extorted millions of dollars from people in the United States, Asia and Europe under the guise of transferring cash abroad.”

Snopes gets credit for the best one liner on the matter: “The real Central Bank of Nigeria tries to warn people about this scam, but it’s the case of the guy with the broom following the elephant—the elephant always gets there first.”

In 1997, Special Agent James Caldwell, of the U.S. Secret Service financial crimes division, said, “We have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months. And that’s just the ones we know of. We figure a lot of people don’t report them.”

A year later, the Los Angeles Times reported other variations on the scam: One sort was directed at a charitable or religious organization, with a will’s bogus inheritance requiring a fee prior to collection. Another con claimed invention of a technology transforming ordinary paper into U.S. currency, with only some startup money requested.

In 2002, you won a lottery you’d forgotten you had entered. A “facilitation fee” would get you big bucks….

The Spanish Prisoner. Nigerians who promise big returns on small investments are working a scam related to the classic Spanish Prisoner, a con dating back to 1588.

Image from The Appendix

The mark is told about a wealthy aristocrat imprisoned under a false identity in Spain. The con artist is raising money for the aristo’s release and “lets” the mark contribute. In return, the mark is promised some of the aristo’s riches and, in some variations, marriage to his beautiful daughter/handsome son.

The initial contribution supposedly primes the aristo’s release, but there’s always another problem and a need for a bit more cash. The con ends when the mark is cleaned out.

In 1898, The New York Times ran “An Old Swindle Revived,” in which it described the Spanish Prisoner as “One of the oldest and most attractive and probably most successful swindles known to the police authorities….” Among attractive features noted are the con’s involving two countries and the victim’s reluctance to admit getting fleeced.

Sound familiar?

Alas, my 1913 Baedeker’s Spain and Portugal ignores the Spanish Prisoner per se, but its information is fascinating nonetheless, sort of like that National Geographic to a nine-year-old.

On “Intercourse with the People,” Baedeker observes, “In educated circles, the stranger is at first apt to be carried away by the lively, cheerful, and obliging tone of society, by the charming spontaneity of manner, and by the somewhat exaggerated politeness of the people he meets.”

“The Spaniard of the lower classes,” Baedeker notes, “is not devoid of national pride, but he possesses much more common sense and a much healthier dislike of humbug than his so-called superiors…. It is necessary to maintain a certain courtesy of manner towards even the humblest individual, who always expects to be treated as a ‘caballēro.’ ”

When it came to “Public Security,” Baedeker advised, “The Guardia Civil (dark blue coat with red facings and a three-cornered hat) is a select body of fine and thoroughly trustworthy men, whose duties resemble those of the Irish Constabulary, and in whom the stranger may place implicit confidence. On the other hand, it is seldom advisable to call in the help of the ordinary police (Guardia Municipal, Guardia de Orden Público). In the case of a riot or other popular disturbance, the stranger should get out of the way as quickly as possible, as the careful police, in order to prevent the escape of the guilty, are apt to arrest anyone they can lay their hands on.”

The next thing you know, your kin back home is sending cash for your release.

Leningrad Guide, by the Leningrad Regional Executive and by the Leningrad Soviet, 1931.

The Russian Agent. Um, sorry, we seem to have run out of time. We’ll save this one for another day. Or maybe just wait for things to unfold in the news. Send cash. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. sabresoftware
    July 27, 2017

    “…Send cash. ds”

    Just send a bank account number and I’m sure we can arrange a transfer

    • simanaitissays
      July 28, 2017

      Um, maybe just send unmarked coins instead? (I have low expectations….)

  2. sabresoftware
    July 27, 2017

    Actually there’s another scam, the phone call from the “Computer Service Department” saying there’s a problem with my computer and that they need to fix it. I had a call from one of these characters once and had lots of fun stringing him along.

    He said Open windows, so I said just a sec and went and opened my home office window. He said what do you see? I said some trees and a squirrel running along the fence. Already somewhat irritated he said open Windows on your computer! Oh, how do I do that? He explained and so I tapped a few keys and said what next. Basically I was able to string him along for about half an hour by playing dumb computer user, but just giving him enough hope that he might get somewhere (pointless actually since I was using a Mac, but I never let him know that). I finally got him so upset that he swore at me and hung up. I must be on their blacklist now because I never get these calls anymore.

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