5 Ways Fraud Hasn’t Changed Since the 19th Century
21 Mar 2017
Spam, phishing, endless email chains… Sometimes we wish we lived in simpler times, when we didn’t have to worry about fraudsters sneaking into our inboxes or lurking in our DMs. But the fraud we see on the internet is actually much older than the internet itself. In fact, fraud hasn’t changed all that much since the invention of the telegraph, and the lessons of the 19th century are surprisingly relevant today.
1. The Nigerian prince scam is older than Nigeria.
A benevolent royal is willing to split a million dollars with you, if only you’ll hand over your bank account info. The scam is so infamous that it’s almost cliché, and an 1876 newspaper warned of a similar scheme on American soil. On Tuesday, March 7, a journalist with The Alamance Gleaner wrote:
“Here is one of the latest swindles. A Country grocer receives a letter stating that, from his name, he may possibly be a cousin of the writer [who] has $9,000 worth of groceries, on which he wishes to realize at once. They shall be shipped at once, and the country cousin will be able to sell them […] under the market price, keep one-third of the amount and forward the balance.”
But there’s a catch. The “cousin” requests a number of storage and cartage fees to be paid upfront, before he can sell the groceries. After the target mails the fraudster his money for the fees, he never hears from the benevolent cousin again.
2. Scammers have always bombarded potential targets with spam.
With the growing popularity of the telegram, Western Union allowed telegraphic messages to be sent to multiple destinations on its network. Scammers and savvy businessmen alike took advantage of the upgrade. It wasn’t uncommon for fraudsters to send out hundreds of unsolicited messages to wealthy businessmen, often promising them goods and services that did not exist.
3. Early fraudsters went phishing with the telegraph.
Fraudsters have developed a simple but powerful scheme. They send an email containing a tempting link – usually to a prize or a download. When the user clicks on the link, they’re invited to enter their bank account or social security number, which the fraudsters snatch up for nefarious purposes.
Although Victorian scammers weren’t in the habit of sending emails, they did use strikingly similar tactics to steal their targets’ information. Nineteenth century fraudsters sent out mass letters or telegrams to potential targets. Most telegrams described a service – often something like a newspaper delivery service – and invited the target to write back with their personal information so the “provider” could start supplying the service. Of course, by the time the target realized their bank account had been cleared out, the scammer had skipped town.
4. Scammers have always relied on our desire to help those in need.
Here’s how the scam works. An Internet fraudster sends an email that explains a problem in convincing detail: a stack of medical bills, or a kid in jail on a false charge. All their problems would disappear if you’d just wire them some money.
Nineteenth century telegraph-users called this a Spanish prisoner scheme. Robert Whitaker, a historian specializing in international crime, uncovered a document from 1905 that illustrates the scam. In the document, a distressed Spaniard named Luis Ramos writes to a shopkeeper, Paul Webb, explaining that his fourteen-year-old daughter has been falsely accused of a crime and thrown in jail. The poor girl will surely suffer some terrible fate unless Webb sends him a small sum to bail her out. In return, Ramos promises “property valuable to £37.000.”
5. Romance has always been one of the best tools in the fraudster’s toolbox.
Dating sites are hotbeds of identity theft and account abuse. People who go looking for love sometimes go running in the opposite direction, having encountered “catfishers” who gain their victim’s trust only to extort, blackmail, or steal.
But as The Herald and Torchlight of Hagerstown, Maryland reported in 1873, the trials and tribulations of the online dater are nothing new. The mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of “matrimonial advertisement” scammers. These precursors to modern catfishers advertised themselves as potential mates, sending unsolicited telegrams or mail, or placing ads in a paper. They encouraged lonely men to write to them, and as the relationship developed, the scammers subjected their victims to blackmail and financial extortion.