NEAL CONAN, HOST:
If you have an email account, you've almost certainly received a message that sounds something like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I am Mr. Edward Impoya(ph), a member of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We are members of the special committee.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I am Mr. Ahmed Guraba(ph), the bills and exchange director at the Foreign Remittance Department.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I am David Mapalay(ph), the first son of Dr. Jonathan Mapalay(ph).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I am Mrs. Inkinuga(ph)...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I am Mr. Samson Imanatay(ph), a former...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I am Eduard William(ph), the only son of Porti William(ph)...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I am a member of the federal government of Nigeria, National Petroleum Corporation.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I am so troubled. My spirit refused to be at rest. The quick need for contacting you is because my husband has been killed unjustly, and I am sure if we don't act fast, head of the Emirates must come for our wealth and millions of American dollars will be seized. About $83 million U.S. my husband had in his private vault has been successfully deposited.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: What we need from you, sir, is to provide a very vital account in which the funds will be transferred.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: For this reason, kindly furnish us your contact information; that is, your personal telephone...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: However, we will sign a binding agreement to bind us together. I got your contact address from the girl who operates...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: You will give us our own fare share of 70% without running away with the money or sitting on it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: The finance company is standing by to receive my instructions on this and I will link you up with them as soon as you are ready to take possession of the 3 32 million. Finally, you are to note that in your reply you are to state your residential or company address and if possible send a copy of your international passport so as to assure me that my money is safe in your hands.
CONAN: That letter has become familiar to us as the Nigerian Prince scam, and it's become a punchline. But this con game has a lot of names, including 419 and the Spanish Prisoner. It dates back at least 200 years, before the Internet age. In a piece for The Boston Globe this past weekend, Finn Brunton wrote the scam's long and twisting story offers a kind of negative portrait of world history. So tell us, which version of the scam has landed in your inbox? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Finn Brunton is an assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan and author of, "Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet." He joins us from a studio at the University of Michigan. Nice to have on TALK OF THE NATION today.
FINN BRUNTON: It's a great pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: 419, why is it known as 419?
BRUNTON: 419 is the Nigerian legal designation for fraud. So there's actually a much larger culture of fraud in Nigeria that's known as 419. That's fraud perpetuated by Nigerians on other Nigerians that range from illegal tolls to people pretending to rent out fake houses, all kinds of houses that are not legally in their possession, all kinds of things along those lines. But to people outside of Nigeria, 419 has become the default term for this kind of email scamming.
CONAN: Yet it was the same scam in the past, as you note, known as the Spanish Prisoner.
BRUNTON: Yes, yes, one of my favorite weird sidelights in the history of human fraud.
CONAN: Now, what is the Spanish Prisoner? What's the origin of that?
BRUNTON: The Spanish Prisoner goes back quite far, but the place that we get the name from is actually from the Spanish-American War, which was one of the sort of first great media wars. It was a war partially fomented in the media, in Hearst papers...
CONAN: You'll provide the pictures, I'll provide the war.
BRUNTON: Exactly, precisely, yes. It's very well dramatized by "Citizen Kane." And one of the side effects of that was that there was this kind of reservoir of common knowledge, of like a day to day near real-time understanding of things that were going on and the fact that there were, you know, mercenaries and adventurers and money and so on and so forth. And that provided a fantastic background, a sort of reality scenario inside which a syndicate of scam artists could create very plausible seeming letters that would build on real world events and create this narrative that someone could then fall for.
CONAN: Yeah. I have his horde of Cuban gold, but to get it I need a little help.
BRUNTON: Exactly, exactly.
CONAN: And it's the same scam. But it was perpetrated by Americans through the mail.
CONAN: And yet you also trace it back to the French Revolution. This is a French export.
BRUNTON: This is the earliest version of this that I've been able to find, partially because up to that point, you know, there's only so far that the Postal Service itself can function for purposes of doing these kinds of blind mailings. But in the memoirs of Eugene Vidocq, who's a figure who I really think is waiting for his own fantastic HBO miniseries...
BRUNTON: ...he was this incredible criminal who reformed and became the first private detective and kind of invented modern police work, and there's lots of prison escapes and so on. So he kept a comprehensive log of all of these forms of criminal activity that were taking place during his lifetime, and one of them was post-revolutionary phenomenon known as the Jerusalem Letters. And these were - so during the revolution, aristocrats, of course, you know, were being executed and their property was being seized, so many of them fled the country.
So after the revolution, letters started to trickle in, sent to, you know, private individuals, saying, I was once, you know, I'm the valet of this aristocrat who was once a vital figure in your province, you know, the Marquis de Blanc, and he fled the country and he had to deposit his treasure in a lake or in a well or he, you know, plastered it up in the walls of his house. And he lives in exile and I, his loyal servant, have come to recover it, except, you know, I got busted for vagrancy, and now I'm in prison, and all I need is a little help from you.
I just need you to, you know, help fund X,Y and Z, and then we'll split some of the treasure, and I'll take it back to my master. And it played on people's affection, occasionally, for - sort of for the old order. But yeah, it also had precisely the same structure, precisely - working on precisely the same sort of cognitive tricks that the contemporary con works on.
CONAN: So you would not be surprised if evidence turned up of some ancient letter, back to the Roman days: We escaped with some Gaulish treasure before Caesar crush us, and we just need a little help.
BRUNTON: Yes, absolutely. I mean, honestly, at this point I would not be surprised to find like cave paintings.
BRUNTON: You know, like, we have a lot of extra obsidian, but we had to leave it in a cave and...
CONAN: Yeah. So this plays - one of the things that is consistent through this story, what you call that negative history, is these are all very troubled places where these stories originate from.
BRUNTON: Yes. They take advantage of - well, there's actually a really - one of the sort of most perfect examples of this that I encountered was actually in the work of an anthropologist named Jenna Burrell, who did studies of Internet cafe use in Ghana and where there's sort of phenomena that kind of relate - very closely related to this. And one of the things that she observed among some of the people that she talked to was they were like, well, actually I need money to, you know, take IT classes or as a kind of investment to start a project, to, you know, set up life in my own apartment or set up my business.
But that's never going to fly because Westerners don't think Africa is like that. So instead I have to come up with this story of corruption and horror, you know - you know the situation in Africa is how one of them begins his letter. We - into these sort of bad historically chaotic situations we know there's greed and graft going on, and the con takes advantage of our misplaced sense of how much of it there is and that we finally could stand to do a little business out of it.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from John in Boone, North Carolina: I'm trying to rent a house in rural North Carolina, three times responded to Craig's ad lists to get - Craigslist ads - to get a response. I am currently in Nigeria. But if you transfer $700 for a deposit, I will send the key. The scammer had taken real over house ads, and the real owners were quite surprised when I showed up at one ready to rent.
I've not heard about that one before either. And this is someone who has sent us from FraudWatchers a monkey scam. This is - hello, everyone. We now have four capuchin monkeys in our home. This is too much for us to keep. And I understand this is what Jay wants to talk about. Jay is on the line with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.
JAY: Yeah. You were talking about the monkey scam. I actually ran across that on the Internet.
CONAN: And how does that work?
JAY: Well, what they do is they just - they say you send us some money, we'll send you the monkey. But it's at way lower price than you would ever even imagine paying...
CONAN: Ah. Thereby the greed.
JAY: Yeah. I mean they're cutting it less than half, less than 50 percent of the actual price that you would pay, 'cause I was looking to go buy a capuchin monkey, actually, and I ran across that ad or one like it, probably, and I looked at it and I reported it and everything because I knew instantly - I mean I'm looking at monkeys coming from Africa for $600, shipping included. That's not going to happen.
JAY: So it's just one - it's one of those things that you have to keep an eye open for.
CONAN: And almost any - well - and thanks very much for the call, Jay. In Hitchcock movies, he used to talk about the MacGuffin. It could be a monkey. It could be a hoard of gold. It could be anything.
BRUNTON: Precisely. Precisely. And that is kind of the core of this. That's exactly how this works, is that on some level the actual object that you're being, you know, sold or offered a cut of or whatever doesn't really matter. What matters is getting you into this loop that's all about the initial fee that you produce. But then trying to say, like, well, to recover that initial fee plus, you know, all the rest that you'll receive, we need just a little more and a little more and a little more. And soon you're trying to spend money just to recover what you've already lost. That's the ultimate goal.
CONAN: That's the ultimate goal and you can extract tremendous amounts of money from some people who are gullible.
BRUNTON: Oh, just shocking amounts. I mean, the average loss, it's a little hard to calculate because of all scams this one is particularly underreported, because, you know, obviously it's both kind of shameful. But also, you're generally admitting to criminal wrongdoing, you know, or trying to engage in some sort of very duplicitous, fraudulent practice by getting involved in this scam in the first place.
But that said, the numbers that we have from several years ago are that the average loss per American who falls for it is a bit more than $5,000. But people have been on record as having lost upwards of millions. There was a significant American criminal case in which a businessman actually sued to recover the $5.6 million he had lost in the course of one of these scams. And his case was fantastically hilarious in retrospect because his suit was structured around the fact that he was trying to illegally get bribery money that had been set aside for him, which the judge was not super-amused by.
CONAN: We're talking about the Spanish Prisoner, the 419 scam. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Here's an email from Steven in Bakersfield: Going through my late father's papers sometimes back, I found a letter dated from 1947. It's for someone wanting to share a fortune if only he would provide his bank information. The language is almost word for word like what has filled my spam mail for years. Now there is nothing new under the sun.
And it's interesting, you noted in your piece that there are often obvious grammatical errors or misspellings in these letters. And there was a piece we did a few years ago in which someone came to the conclusion - there is a reason for that. By making them really obviously fraudulent, you're weeding out the skeptics. You're only getting truly gullible responses.
BRUNTON: I think that's exactly true. I think the - it was a Microsoft research study I believe.
CONAN: I think so, yes.
BRUNTON: Yeah. They made a really excellent - and to my mind, well, there are variations on the scam, some of which are about presenting certain kinds of plausibility. But, yeah, they actually - they - I think they proved that many of the scammers realize that you want to sort the field first. You want to make sure that you end with the real suckers in the same way that, back in the earlier days of spam, spammers would often sell and resell at higher value collections of addresses that were gotten from the databases of, for example, you know, New Age pharmaceutical manufacturers or what have you because they knew that those clients would be - to put it gently - easier to fool.
CONAN: A target rich environment.
BRUNTON: Yes. That's very nicely put, yes.
CONAN: Here's one from Nicola: I received one and wrote back, telling the author that we're mean-spirited, cruel vultures preying on the weak and deserved to be left in the dessert for a week. I also told them I'd reported his email to various police and scam departments.
Hilariously he wrote back, telling me he had cursed my family. My future children would be all be shriveled and unable to reproduce. I laughed so hard. I wrote back telling him his narrative was so inventive, could we keep up the discourse? He never wrote back.
CONAN: Let's go to David. David is on the line with us from Syracuse.
DAVID: Yes. My favorite 419 - this was in my inbox five or six years ago. It was - excuse me - somebody saying that they were the daughter of Wormtoungue from "Lord of the Rings."
DAVID: Her father had been killed by a band northern orcs. She'd hidden $25 million worth of gold doubloons. And if you did the usual stuff they would share it with you. I didn't forward it. I figured the message was probably full of viruses. I didn't preserve it, but I couldn't do anything with it for five minutes laughing. I don't know if it was a legitimate attempt or a spoof.
CONAN: It's sometimes hard to find the line there, I guess.
BRUNTON: It may well have fallen somewhere between those two, you know? It might have just been an actual scammer having a laugh or a scammer just being like, nah...
CONAN: You never know.
BRUNTON: You never know. Yeah.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, David.
DAVID: (Unintelligible) sent the doubloons.
CONAN: Let's see if we get - this is an email that we have from Joseph: I'm a natural born Nigerian. My experience came about two years ago while I was trying to sell a motorcycle I owned. I posted my ad on Craigslist for $3,000. I got an email a few days later asking me to send my bike down to North Carolina after a check for $6,000 was sent to me. The guy said he was in Nigeria. He couldn't come to pick up the bike but asked that I ship the bike. Knowing it was a scam, I asked him to send the check to my office and gave him my cellphone.
A few days later, I was at a company softball game with some co-workers, some of whom I had informed of this situation. When I got a call from the guy asking if I got the check, sensing his accent, knowing that we were from the same tribe, I began to tell him in my language, Yoruba, that the FBI was after him. It probably took him less than a second before he hung up.
And we do call it the Nigerian prince scam because those are, you know, a lot of trouble in Nigeria. Everybody knows it's an oil rich - anyway, a lot of these people clearly aren't from Nigeria. The scam didn't originate there, probably didn't originate anywhere.
BRUNTON: Yeah. No, it's - well, that is something that actually brings up a really important point, which is that it's kind of a tragedy in some ways that it has become so heavily associated with Nigeria, precisely because many Nigerians within the country and without are outraged by the fact that this, you know, fairly small group of extremely visible criminals have made their country synonymous with fraud in a way that almost no other country in human history has ever been associated with fraud.
There is fantastic movies - I actually strongly recommend them, they're really entertaining - from the Nigerian film industry that are tales of like the 419 lifestyle and studies of how these people come to a bad end and mislead the country. There's an excellent one called "The Master," which is different from the Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
CONAN: Let's hope so, yes.
BRUNTON: But they provided really fascinating other side of this. The side of the people who can see their country being sort of traduced on the world stage by this group of scammers.
CONAN: When, in fact, what all these scammers from the French Revolution right on down to the present day are doing is illuminating human nature.
BRUNTON: Yes, yes, very much so. Illuminating our capacity to believe in fairy tales, our desire to finally take advantage of the crime that we're sure is going on around us all the time, our ability to - something that always just amazes me about this, completely setting aside people falling for the scam in the first place, it's also the people who, with all due respect to the victims, you know, who have - who are often been direly misled, who just sort of believe that the money will be theirs, you know, they'll just sort of have it, you know? Somehow millions will show up and the IRS will never ask about it and, you know, it will never become an issue.
CONAN: Finn Brunton, thanks very much.
BRUNTON: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Finn Brunton will start as assistant professor of information at New York University's Department of Media, Culture and Communication this fall. His piece was in the Boston Globe on Sunday. He joined us from the University of Michigan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.