The Spanish Prisoner, 419, And The Donald Trump Scam

Have you ever heard of the Spanish Prisoner scam? It dates back to the 1600’s through the late 1800’s, and targeted English (and later, American) moneyed individuals to get their cash.

One such letter might describe “he Marquis de _______, who in escaping from revolutionary violence had thrown a chest full of jewels into a lake. His faithful servant, now writing this heartfelt letter, had come back to retrieve it and unfortunately ended up in prison. With just a little help from you, a fellow Frenchman, to aid in the servant’s bail or escape, you’d earn a portion of the loot.”

For every hundred of these sent by French conmen, “twenty were always answered,” the Boston Globe quoted French ex-criminal Eugène Vidocq.

It’s the same with the updated Internet version of this scam, called the “419” for the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud.

Quite well-educated people fall for these scams, and some are taken for thousands of dollars, milked like cash cows, and left with nothing. The sordid and sad tale of John W. Worley, a Massachusetts psychotherapist who lost nearly $80,000 and his sanity was written up in The New Yorker in 2006.

Even after his conviction for passing bad checks on behalf of his Nigerian scammers, he still said he’d do it again. “I don’t know,” Worley said finally, sounding defeated. “I have to have time to think about what I would do in that situation.”

An enduring trait of Nigerian letter scammers—indeed, of most con artists—is their reluctance to walk away from a mark before his resources are exhausted. On February 5, 2003, several days after the checks were revealed as phony, after Worley was under siege by investigators, after his bank account had been frozen, after he had called his partners “evil bastards,” Worley received one more e-mail from Mercy Nduka.

The hallmark of these scammers is that they rely on victims to self-select. The letters and emails are so outlandish and filled with wondrous riches (all lies) that only people invested in the process would dare answer. Yet thousands do. It’s psychology, and it’s as old as the first lie the serpent told Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Such is Donald Trump’s effect on his chosen marks. He doesn’t care who they are. He stakes out a position “build a wall,” “Mexico sends rapists into America,” “stop all Muslims from entering the country,” and people who identify with those statements self-select to him. They answer his letter, so to speak.

He then offers them an opportunity to help, with no cash down. He’s financing his own campaign, so he doesn’t bombard his marks with letters seeking cash, like the other candidates do. He only asks that you attend a rally, should he pass through your city.

It’s not their cash that Trump is after, it’s their vote, after all. And not just their vote, but their allegiance to him. If they would just make a small deposit of their time and support, Trump will do the rest, he offers. It’s close to the “if you would send $28 to us, we’ll wire you $5,000.”

Of course, the $5,000 is fake, but it clears fast enough before the bank discovers it’s a fraud. And then the mark hooked. If the mark would just send $2,500 of that $5,000 to us, we’ll get him $50,000. So they do, then the bank takes the five grand back. And they’re in the hole. So they keep going back to the people who supposedly have the fifty grand. And so it goes until there’s no more money.

The checks that Donald Trump writes with his mouth are as phony as his $9 billion net worth. He has no idea how he’d do any of it. The deals Trump touts are simply other circumstances where he’s used other people’s (and banks’) money to finance sometimes high-risk ventures. Some paid off, some went bankrupt. Some are being sued by the New York Attorney General.

If Donald Trump had simply invested the $200 million his father left him into S&P index funds, he’d be worth at least $2 billion more than he sort-of might be worth now (if anyone really knows what he’s worth because it changes based on his mood, according to Trump’s own words). The man will say anything to keep his relationship with his mark. He will continue saying things because he’s a scammer and a con artist. Trump will not walk away until the mark’s resources are exhausted.

Voting for Trump is voting for a con man, a sharp, a grifter. There’s a reason Trump will threaten to sue anyone who gets too close to exposing his scam, or says “bad things” about him. That’s not fighting back, it’s protecting his relationship with his marks. It’s what criminals do. They threaten (I’ve got a little bit of experience with this).

There’s a reason Trump doesn’t repudiate the thugs who gather around him.

They’re needed to keep people away from the truth. But even if the truth is exposed, the marks, like John Worley, are so compromised that they continue to serve their new master.

The best way to avoid 419 scams is to not answer the email. The best way for Rubio and Cruz to win is to expose Trump for what he is. Don’t argue policy with him (he has none). Don’t argue on his terms.

Call him what he is: a scammer and a con man.

About the author

Steve Berman

The old Steve cared about money, prestige, and power. Then Christ found me. All at once things changed. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I spent 30 years in business. Now I write and edit. But mostly I love. I have a wife and 2 kids and a dog and we live in a little house in central Georgia.

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