Personal Finance 

Long Confidence Tricks & Scams

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TNT Leverage Show CastI’ve been watching a new TNT series called Leverage, a modern day Robin Hood-type story where a group of former criminals, led by an honest but troubled former insurance investigator; steal from criminals and give to the ordinary citizens that have been themselves wronged. It’s a fun little diversionary show and it’s introduced me to the names of several confidence tricks, or “cons.”

In the world of confidence tricks, there are short cons and long cons. Short cons are meant to take all the cash and valuables on your person. Long cons are more elaborate ruses designed to take more than what you have on you, they’re designed to take you for everything you have. In this article, we’ll just talk about the long cons because, well, they’re more interesting to talk about!

Spanish Prisoner Con

The Spanish Prisoner con is one in which the victim (“mark”) must secure funds to break someone out of prison. The origins date back to the 1900s and involves the mark springing a wealthy person who has been falsely and wrongly imprisoned in Spain under the wrong identity. The prisoner can’t reveal who they really are but the con man (or woman) has to convince the mark that they will be rewarded as long as they can supply some money to spring the prisoner free.

You can see many variations of this scheme in use today, most notably by Nigerian scammers. You won the lottery, but you have to give up $10,000 to help pay for the fees before you can get your pay day. Or a prince in Africa needs to launder money, he just needs you to front some of the fees. You can see the parallels, instead of someone in prison it’s merely funds that need to be freed. You are promised a huge reward in return for some money, same scam, just a different story around it.

Sweetheart Con

The Sweetheart Con, also known as the Lonely Hearts Scam or the Sweatheart Swindle, is very simple – the con artist gains the affection of their mark, uses that affection to gain access to their money, then steals the money. There are variations of this but the basic premise is the same, the mark falls in love and will do anything for the con and then the con bleeds them dry. It’s sometimes money, sometimes citizenship, sometimes identity, but the end result is still the same.

In the past, cons would have to meet their marks at places where there was a high level of trust, such as church groups. Nowadays, with the internet, many are turning to online dating websites to find their marks. There is even a Yahoo! Group called romancescams dedicated to educating people on these types of scams.

The Big Store Con

If you’ve ever seen The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul newman, then you’ve seen The Big Store con. In a Big Store con, the scammer and his associates have to set up an elaborate ruse to trick the mark into believing the “store” is real. In The Sting, they set up an entire OTB to cheat one person; they dismantled it after exacting revenge. In real life, Big Store cons run over and over and over again. The big up front investment, and so many players, requires a big payoff.

There are three versions of the Big Store Con: The Rag, The Payoff, and The Wire. The Rag and The Payoff are versions where the store is a stock exchange and The Wire is when the store is a casino. The basics of each scam are the same, the clever names are just given to the variation. If you’re curious about how a Rag works, you can see it all explained on, which explains how the Blonger crew ran their little operation back in the 20s.

Goldbricking, Coin Collector Scams

Goldbricking and the coin collector scam are scams where a gold brick is sold to a mark when it is in fact only partly made of gold. The original story of the goldbrick scam was told in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1888, according to World Wide Words. In October of 1879, the president of First National Bank of Ravenna Ohio, N. D. Clark, was approached by five miners when he visited a mine he owned in Colorado. They had a 52-pound gold brick they wanted to sell Mr. Clark. They took the brick to a blacksmith who took off a little corner and saw that it was truly gold, so he advanced them some money. Turns out only the corners were gold, the rest was worthless brick. The coin collector scam version of this involves selling a set of rare coins on the cheap, when in fact most of the coins (except the ones that are verified) are common and worth only face value. The modern day versions are all pretty similar to the more storied ones, show part of something to be valuable when the rest of it is not.

There you have it, some very famous long cons and how they may be seen today. Do you know of any cleverly named cons that I missed? I’d love to add to this list!

My apologies to those who read this earlier and saw only part of the post, I think WordPress ate the balance of the article but I tried to recreate it as best I could.

{ 21 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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21 Responses to “Long Confidence Tricks & Scams”

  1. Matt Fyffe says:

    Man, your information on the Sweetheart Con makes me have my reservations about online dating. I’d never heard of that one and I’m surprised people would go to the such lengths to con. It seems like a difficult one.

    • Jim says:

      Many times people don’t even meet, it’s a person in another country and the relationship is entirely online. I’ve read stories where people are willing to accept packages on their “significant other’s” behalf for delivery to someone else, never knowing the contents (which are often illegal) of the packages. I think all of these Cons are “difficult” but it’s like the Nigerian 419 scams, you get one and you’re set for life in a low cost of living country.

  2. katy says:

    Jim, where’s the rest of the goldbricking, coin..,? (searching)

  3. Jim, I think your article got cut off prematurely…

    I’ve watched a couple episode of Leverage as well, but can’t really get into the characters. The acting is also a little less than stellar making it hard for me to want more.

    That being said, I think it’s awesome you’ve outlined these basic scam types. You would be surprised how many people still talk about the Nigerian Scam, Princess Scam, etc…

    The most recent scam that even had me for a short time was the letter that got sent out from the PCI Compliance Department to all small businesses in our area (at least our area). It looked like it was from a government department, seems extremely legit, and talked about covering yearly “compliance” codes for a PCI department.

    After doing quick research I saw that the $45.00 fee was a well thought out scam. However, I do wonder how many random small business owners sent in funds without taking the time to look up the scam online.

  4. Have you ever seen the show Lost? One of the characters is a con man who goes extensively through some of his past cons. Actually, a couple of the characters on con men. It sounds stupid but it’s a very entertaining show.

    • Jim says:

      Yep, Sawyer was a con man; did you see last night’s episode? craaaazy!

      • No, I haven’t seen any of season 5. I usually wait until they come out on DVD and then watch them all back to back in a crazy frenzy some weekend. I’ve seen them all through season 4 and am really excited to watch them all. As soon as all of season 5 is available I’m diving in. It’s so addictive.

  5. Very interesting. I love movies about cons like The Sting, House of Games, and Criminal. Sawyer is a good con man!

  6. The Spanish Prisoner is even older than you think, dating to the era of the Spanish Armada. In the 1950’s it was practiced via good old US Mail from Mexico.

  7. Jackson says:

    I heard about another scam that seems to happen a lot during Spring Break.

    If you have kids going to a foreign country someone might impersonate a hospital worker and tell you that your child was in an accident and they need immediate surgery.

    They’ll say that your US insurance doesn’t work over there, but they can hook you up with an insurance agent in their local country… you just need to wire over the money.

  8. saladdin says:

    The biggest scam is marriage.


  9. Jenni says:

    The last I heard, aren’t you suppose to report scams to the US postal service. With the change
    at the top, who knows now? Luckily I read them through, and if it sounds strange, I take it to the post office, and let them check it out. People have been scamming, without conscience, for so long. Wow! Thanks for the info about scamming, and the show, I will have to check it out.

  10. Kate says:

    You got me hooked on Leverage!! I just watched all the episodes online since reading this post a week or two ago. Now I can’t wait for more. I found it a bit cheesy and sometimes hard to buy into, but I love “good con” type of shows (like Ocean’s 11 and the Italian Job) so I really enjoyed watching it.

    To the people talking about LOST–creepiness, because the actors who played Bernard AND the one who played Anthony Cooper (the Original Sawyer, John Locke’s father) have both been on Leverage! Seeing Cooper as a bad guy again was sort of natural, but Bernard as a bad guy? no!

    Anyway, thanks for hooking me on Leverage! I know I’ll be watching it when it comes back in the summer. 🙂

  11. Amy says:

    What about an exmplanation of “The Big Store Con” for people who have never seen The Sting and don’t know what OTB means?

  12. PaulDoesItAll says:


    Just for reference, the Spanish Prisoner Con dates back to the 1600’s in England.

  13. Hayley says:

    Hey all,

    I love Leverage, eliot has stolen my heart, but for those Americans who read this the UK have their own version-ish check out Hustle, Mickey Briggs is the man, the cons are great and there is always a twist thrown in.

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