I’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.
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 BlongerBros.com , 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.