Many of us have received e-mail scams from fake sources (bogus relatives, supposed political prisoners) promising great financial reward if we agree to help them recover their secreted fortune. I’ve received them from Ghana and Germany, and one came from the country of West Africa. Never heard of it? It was named in the e-mail message, and I know it’s real—in 2008, Paris Hilton said, “I love Africa in general. South Africa and West Africa, they are both great countries.”
The senders describe themselves as anything from an imprisoned citizen to a dethroned king, urgently seeking help. I received a cheap one recently, offering only about $600,000 if I sent my account info so that funds could be safely transferred. Most times, the teaser ranges from $10-$20 million. It’s likely that many people think this is “an Internet thing,” a product of modern mass communications, but the only thing new about it is the manner of delivery.
That particular scam has been around for more than a century. Known as the Spanish Swindle, it is believed to have originated in Spain’s infamous prisons during the late 19th century. Inmates with far too much time on their hands took advantage of a corrupt system, developing many criminal strategies and exercising them to great effect from within prison walls.
The original Spanish Swindle hasn’t changed much, except that it was often a two-step process. The first was to hook the sucker with a plea for empathy and the promise of great wealth. When a nibble was received, the ante was raised by beseeching the person to help rescue the prisoner’s poor, innocent daughter from the clutches of some tyrant or lecher.
Just as is done with e-mail today, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of such messages were sent by mail. Addresses were obtained in a variety of ways. In the Adirondacks, a few hotel owners were among those who received the letters, their addresses having been obtained from newspaper advertisements aimed at tourists. The plea was appropriately modified—in the hopes of gaining sympathy, the sender claimed to have once been a hotel owner himself.
Though “Saturday Night Live” described us northerners in highly unflattering terms, none of the Adirondack “Rock-Eaters” (now that’s funny!) who received it were fooled by the scam attempt. Elsewhere, pharmacists, doctors, and others were victimized, much to their embarrassment.
The Spanish Swindle became so successful that, in 1912, the US Official Postal Guide began including a complete description of the process in order to alert employees.
That’s not to say North Country folks are immune to trickery. All types of swindles have been attempted in the region, many of them successfully. A number of scams from long ago focused on obtaining a person’s signature. A sort of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) then took over: if your name was on a document, you were bound by its clauses. Even if a signature was obtained fraudulently, victims often paid to avoid court time and public embarrassment.
In 1888, teams of encyclopedia salesmen made the rounds in Franklin County, targeting schoolteachers. The first salesman gave his best pitch for a great new line of books, and if no sale was made, he innocently asked the teacher to sign his log book to record the visit.
A few days later, a second salesman delivered a full set of books, demanding payment from the surprised teacher, whose signed order was offered as proof of sale. (Sleight of hand and “bait and switch” were routine components of scams. The first salesman had subtly arranged documents within his “log book.”)
Sleight of hand was sometimes replaced by the latest technology. In 1889, swindlers in the area focused on the devoutly religious, of which the North Country had many. An attractive female pleaded for donations of ten cents to aid overseas missionary work. When asked to sign a sheet, donors were all too happy to have their names displayed on the list of generous givers.
But vanity came with a price. Beneath the sheet was “an ingenious copying paper which transcribed the name onto a promissory note.” In those days, a promissory note was as good as a check or a banknote. The notes were quickly cashed and the scammers moved on.
Photo: 1951 North Country headline story noting the resurgence of the Spanish Swindle.