That “Nigerian Prince” e-mail scam? It’s as old as the hills.

scamsMost people I know have received at least one of them over the years:  a heartfelt plea to help some poor soul in a foreign land who is in need of assistance.

And if you help, you’ll be duly rewarded – with enough cash that you can quit your job and retire early.

… All this for simply delivering a few thousand dollars in funds up-front.

It’s amazing that people fall for these sorts of scams – but they do.  Some folks can’t see beyond their dreams of avarice, no matter how sketchy the premise.

And the fact that these schemes have been pumped into seemingly every e-mail inbox in existence over the past 15 years or so proves that they work on some level.

It turns out that this isn’t just some phenomenon of the e-mail era, where mass solicitations can be done for practically no out-of-pocket cost.  (Or even in the FAX era before that.)

In fact, this “advanced fee” swindle – and variants of it – dates back half a millennium.

… To the year 1588, to be precise.  That’s when the so-called “Spanish Prisoner” scheme appeared for the first time.  Here’s how it went:

A fraudster sends someone a letter purportedly on behalf of some wealthy aristocrat who is imprisoned under a false name in a Spanish jail cell.  The letter-writer claims that he can bribe the guards to allow the prisoner to escape – but needs money up-front to pay the bribe.  The letter recipient is asked to provide a specific amount of funds for the jailbreak – with the assurance that the freed nobleman will repay ten-fold the funds later.

scam letter
Appealing for advance fees: Same old scam, but in an earlier era …

Despite the 500-year span, this story doesn’t sound much different from the “Nigerian Prince”-type appeals most of us have received in recent years.

Proving how resilient the swindle is, in 1898 the New York Times reported on a particularly scurrilous scam that was circulating in the United States at the time.  The March 20, 1898 edition of the newspaper described the scheme as follows:

“A man in the country receives a letter from a foreign city … The letter is written on thin, 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 …”

There was even a short story written on this very topic by mystery author Arthur Train which appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1910.

How did the “Spanish Prisoner” story migrate to Nigeria by way of New York?

The answer has everything to do with the end of colonial rule in the former French and English colonies of West Africa.

Immediately following Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the highly corrupt successor regime plunged the country into political and economic chaos – there’s really no other way to describe it.

Even the discovery of offshore oil riches did little to alleviate the country’s ills (and in fact may have contributed even more to the sky-high levels of corruption and malfeasance).

Then, in the early 1980s the oil boom fizzled, leaving in its wake a shattered economy and a population in desperate need of money.  Soon, the “Spanish Prisoner” saga morphed into the “Nigerian Prince” story — and we were off to the races.

Other nations in the region weren’t immune to the same impulses:  Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gold Coast/Ghana, Upper Volta/Burkina Faso all experience similar growing pains as young countries, with the attendant social strife.

Sometimes the scam stories took on different permutations:  romance scams, lottery schemes, work-from-home swindles … and they were perpetrated in two languages (French and English), with FAX machines (and later e-mail inboxes) targeted in the United States, England, Canada, Australia, France and elsewhere that were inundated with appeals.

But Nigeria was – and continues to be – the modern-day epicenter of such frauds.

In fact, the very term the U.S. government uses to identify these advanced fee schemes is “Nigerian 419 scam,” which refers to Section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code.  It was added by the Nigerian judiciary to cover fraudulent activities of this type once they became so ubiquitous.

Human nature being what it is, advanced-fee scams like the “Spanish Prisoner” or “Nigerian Prince” will never die.  As long as there are people longing to “get rich quick” – on both sides of the bargain – we’ll see it continue to pop up.

It’s proof yet again that despite the technological leaps we’ve made in communications over the centuries – from couriers and pages to postal delivery, FAXes and e-mail – basic human impulses remain the same.  You can scam in any language … use any technology … and find a “useful fool” no matter where and when.