How Long Will Those Libyan Treasures Last?

Famous or infamous, when you make news, the scammers pay attention. While we have come to expect the famous and infamous to show up in malware attacks that use spam and SEO poisoning, we shouldn’t be surprised when scammers leverage the spotlight that current events shine on the infamous. As Samir Patil blogged on Monday, the Gaddafi family is showing up in 419 scams. After all, few of us know a real Nigerian prince, but most of us have heard of Gaddafi, know he is in a bit of trouble, and might have the resources to buy his way out of trouble.

I can’t predict how events in Libya will end for the Gaddafi family. But I do predict that they will become very popular not only in 419 scams, but in a variation called the inheritance con.

Like the 419/Spanish prison scam, the inheritance con goes way back. The most famous version is the Drake scam, which started shortly after the death of Sir Francis Drake in 1596.

Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and is considered an English hero for fighting the Spanish Armada. The Spanish considered him a pirate. Whatever your view, there is no doubt that he took untold riches from the Spanish ships that he attacked and many people believed he hung on to those riches, having a large fortune at the time of his death.

Sir Francis Drake - Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Back then a celebrity death brought out the scammers too. Soon letters were being sent claiming that the receiver could get their hands on a large portion of these riches. There were, of course, some minor difficulties that had to be surmounted first, but a little cash from the recipient of the letter could easily make those difficulties go away.

Originally this scam was targeted towards people whose last name was Drake. In the early 1900s in the US, scam artists would visit local towns, search the phone book for anyone named Drake and then pay them a visit to inform them that they were an heir of Sir Francis Drake and were in line to inherit his vast fortune. They were told that in the 300 years since Drake’s death, there had been legal issues preventing the rightful heir from collecting the fortune, and that it would take only a modest amount of the sucker’s money to clear it up. 

Innovation doesn’t just happen in legitimate business. In 1919 a former Iowan policeman, farmer, and salesman named Oscar Hartzell took this scam to a whole new level. After watching two conmen bilk his mother, he chased after them; not to arrest them or to get his mother’s money back, but to show them what they were doing wrong, and how the scam should be run!

Hartzell may not have been the first scammer to con people not named Drake, but he took the scam to new heights. In his telling, Hartzell represented the true heir to the fortune and was raising money from investors to cover legal costs of freeing the inheritance from the British government. According to Hartzell, the Drake fortune, with interest, was now worth US$100 million. Anyone agreeing to invest was promised a 500 to 1 return on his or her investment. Before he was done Hartzell had over 80,000 investors. In some cases he convinced whole towns to become investors. He employed a gang of confederates to find new investors and squeeze additional money out of existing ones. At one point he moved to England, sending telegraphs to his investors again and again insisting he needed them to come up with more money so he could finally wrestle the inheritance free from the legal morass that held it.

Even after Hartzell was deported from England and tried and convicted in US courts, many investors refused to believe they had been fleeced. Investors continued to donate to him as he sat in Leavenworth Penitentiary. 

Sir Francis Drake and his fortune captured the imagination of scammers and their victims for several hundred years. Most of the famous and infamous today do not have that kind of staying power. It will be interesting to see if the Gaddafi’s do.