Spanish Prisoner
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Basic Information

The Spanish Prisoner is a confidence game dating back to the early 1900s. In its original form, the con man tells his victim (the mark) that he is in correspondence with a wealthy person of high estate who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. The alleged prisoner cannot reveal his identity without serious repercussions, and is relying on the confidence trickster to raise money to secure his release. The confidence trickster offers to let the victim supply some of the money, with a promise that he will be rewarded generously when the prisoner returns; financially and perhaps also by being married to the prisoner's beautiful daughter. However, once the victim has turned over his money, he learns that further difficulties have arisen, requiring more money, and the trickster continues attempting to get more money until the victim is cleaned out and the process ends, presumably with the victim realizing he has been defrauded and that there is neither a rich man, nor a reward coming to him.

Key features of the Spanish Prisoner trick are the emphasis on secrecy and the trust the confidence trickster is supposedly placing in the victim not to reveal the prisoner's identity or situation. The confidence trickster will often claim to have chosen the victim carefully, based on his reputation for honesty and straight dealing, and may appear to structure the deal so that the confidence trickster's ultimate share of the reward will be distributed voluntarily by the victim. The basic premise involves enlisting the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes believes he can cheat the con artists out of their money, but anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con by believing that the money is there to steal (see also black money scam). Note that the classic Spanish Prisoner trick also contains an element of the romance fraud. This is a long con, with the mark being taken over multiple interactions, and the situation worsening at each step.

Modern variants of the Spanish Prisoner include the advance fee fraud, in particular the Nigerian money transfer fraud (or "419 fraud"). In the advance fee fraud, a valuable item must be ransomed from a warehouse, crooked customs agent, or lost baggage facility before the authorities or thieves recognize its value. In the Nigerian variation, a self-proclaimed relative of a deposed African dictator offers to transfer millions of ill-gotten dollars into the bank account of the victim in return for small initial payments to cover bribes and other expenses.

Sources

Most of the text above is from wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Prisoner
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_confidence_tricks

The film The Spanish Prisoner, written and directed by David Mamet, includes such a confidence trick as part of the plot, as does his other film about con men, House of Games. This scam is also contained in the movie The Flim-Flam Man. Arthur Train's story "The Spanish Prisoner" was published in the March, 1910 issue of The Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Middle Earth version of the Nigerian money transfer fraud letter

Game and Story Use

  • An entire campaign could be structured as a Spanish Prisoner scam, but bilking heroic actions out of the PCs instead of money. The heroes are promised various rewards if they complete a particular quest, but when they return to base after the first quest is done, they learn something else has befallen one of the patrons who would provide the reward money. The patron can't pay up till the PCs perform this other quest to free up the money. It goes on like this for however long the PCs are willing to let it go - eventually, they'll probably decide to cut and run, or perhaps get vengeance on their previous patron. Or, depending on the players, they might just accept it as no more bizarre than the traditional dungeon-romp you-meet-a-wizard-in-a-tavern structure.
  • Another possibility is for the Spanish Prisoner story to actually be true. A wealthy spy, imprisoned for something that didn't break his cover, who needs an outside agent to help free him? Classic adventure hook!
  • Similar variations can easily be played out where someone claiming to be a refugee needs help to move assets out of his home country without them being seized by a hostile government (this could play equally well in the 1930s) or frozen by international economic sanctions. In fact, you could probably run this scheme pretty hard if you had access to the mailing list of a human rights lobby group … most such probably have plenty of people up for a little "direct action" to "assist refugees" who could be roasted good and hard by a scammer and then be reluctant to report the crime to the police.
    • …and of course, a suitably corrupt government hoping to rob and expel an unwanted minority could even turn their intelligence agencies loose on this sort of job, thus both earning black juice for themselves and poisoning the well for actual refugees.
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