Editors Note: This was originally posted to the Traveller Mailing List, and reposted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in October 2007. This reprinting, as it appears in the May/June 2016 issue, has been lightly edited.
Con games and scams have been around as long as humans have been around. You can rest assured that once Og finally polished off a mammoth, Ug immediately tried to trick him out of a steak or two. Literature, mythology, and folk tales the world over abound with stories about tricksters. Homer’s Iliad reaches its climax when the Greeks, after ten years of battle, finally trick the Trojans, take the city, and win the war.
Scams and cons make for great RPG scenarios too, if the referee and PCs can pull it off. Accordingly, I’ve typed up this little primer on four basic cons or scams. I’ll lay out how each works in general terms and how each can be tweaked or customized. Most cons have been around for centuries, if not millennia. The specific details of a scam may change, but the underlying mechanism remains the same.
Cons and scams work thanks to human emotions. In a purely rational society, cons and scams would not work. While cons and scams do rest on the emotions you’d first think of, greed or fear, they also take advantage of other feelings, like charity or benevolence.
A brief note on terminology: The ‘mark’ is the person, or persons, being targeted by the confidence tricksters. ‘Short’ cons are named such because they either involve small amounts of money or take a short period of time. ‘Long’ cons are for large sums or take longer periods. If money is taken from a mark in several payments over a period of time, the con artists are said to ‘grind’ the money out.
The Badger Game
This scam depends on the mark’s desire to avoid either arrest or a ruined reputation. In the classic Badger Game, the mark is caught by the con artists in flagrante delicto with a woman other than his wife. Naturally, the mark’s bed partner is one of the con artists! Once in a compromising situation, the second con artist, posing as a husband, boy friend, cop, priest, etc., bursts in and ‘discovers’ the couple. The mark is encouraged by the con artists to pay money in order to ‘hush up’ the affair.
A ‘short’ con, the Badger Game depends on the mark being eager to hush things up. Contact with the mark only lasts a few minutes or hours, long enough for a ‘deal’ to be made and money to be handed over. Please note, the Badger Game is not exactly blackmail. The con artists do not intend to ‘grind’ the mark, as he will not be approached for additional payments in the future. Indeed, the con artists do not want to ‘grind’ any future payments out of the mark because that will negate the ‘deal’ the mark thought he had made! The con artists don’t want the mark to realize that he has been taken. Contacting the mark for further payments would run the risk of tipping the mark off, or ‘smartening up a chump’.
The Badger Game can be easily tweaked and customized. The con need not involve extramarital sex or even illegal acts. All that the mark needs to be ‘caught’ doing is something he would rather not have bruited about. Any social faux pas that the mark feels strongly enough about will do. A Moslem found drinking alcohol, or a Mormon found drinking coffee, may want it to be kept quiet.
Because the Badger Game depends on the mores and laws of a particular society, this con may not be easily worked on certain worlds. A very conservative society with a high law level would afford con artists with many activities to bait their traps with. Conversely, an anarchic society on a free wheeling world may not afford any opportunities at all. The activities an individual from one of those worlds might find embarrassing may not be worth paying to hush up; the mark may decide to remove all of the witnesses instead!
The Pigeon Drop
An ancient scam, this con depends on the ability of the con artists to misdirect the mark’s attention either with bluster or sleight of hand. At some point during the scam, the packet or bundle containing the mark’s money must be switched with a ‘gaffe’ packet or bundle which contains nothing. US readers may remember a version of the Pigeon Drop from the opening scene of The Sting.
In the classic Pigeon Drop, the mark is approached by one of the con artists. The con man has found some money. Sometimes, the mark is allowed to ‘find’ the money and the first con man immediately approaches him. The con man begins to propose that he and the mark find the money’s rightful owner when the second con man, the ‘singer’, comes up. The con men will pretend to be strangers, just as the mark is strangers with them.
The second con man identifies the money as something that will not be claimed; i.e., it is from illegal or immoral activities. He suggests that the windfall is to be split between the three men and the first con artist agrees.
For various reasons, the split cannot be done right away and each of the three will need to put up ‘good faith’ or ‘bona fide’ money in order to share in the windfall. Naturally, this is where the mark’s money is whisked away and he is left quite literally ‘holding the bag’!
Like the Badger Game, the Pigeon Drop is a short con. Contact between the con artists and their mark will last only minutes, maybe a few hours if the mark needs to withdraw funds to provide his ‘good faith’ share. The Pigeon Drop depends on a mark’s greed or a desire to help, whereas the Badger Game depends on embarrassment or fear.
Over the centuries, the Pigeon Drop has been tweaked and customized nearly out of all recognition. One version has an illegal immigrant with a winning lottery ticket. Others involve ‘lost’ valuable items that need to be sold before the sale proceeds are shared; still others ‘dropped’ payroll checks.
One popular version has the first con artist attempting to sell a valuable item because they need immediate cash to handle some emergency. In this version, the ‘singer’ volunteers to purchase the item because he knows where he can resell it. However, the ‘singer’ doesn’t have the full purchase price on hand. The mark and ‘singer’ together purchase the item for resale, giving the first con artist the immediate money he ‘needs’. After further shenanigans, the mark is left with a worthless item and an empty bank account.
While both are ‘short’ cons, the Badger Game and Pigeon Drop do vary in certain aspects. After running the Badger Game, the con artists can still stick around. Their mark may not even know he has been scammed, all he knows is that he has successfully arranged for something to be hushed up. Unlike the mark in the Badger Game, the mark in the Pigeon Drop knows he has been swindled. The con artists involved in that scam need to either move on or at the least change their appearance.
Next, I’ll discuss two ‘long’ cons; the Spanish Prisoner and the Pyramid Scheme, lay out their operating details, and describe a few versions of each. Both of these scams are ‘long’ in nature. The con artists are in contact with the mark(s) for long periods of time, days or weeks, and are attempting to come away with large amounts of money. ‘Short’ cons, like those described earlier in this article, depend on fleeting contact with the mark and usually involve smaller amounts of money.
The Spanish Prisoner
An ancient con game, the Spanish Prisoner presents the mark with a person who must be ransomed or item that must be purchased. After the person or item is retrieved, there will be a large payoff for those involved in the ransom or purchase. The ‘Nigerian Bank Scam’ (which no longer involves only Nigerian banks; ‘inheritances’ or ‘unclaimed funds’ from other countries are not rare) or ‘4-1-9’ is nothing but the latest permutation of the venerable Spanish Prisoner scam.
The Spanish Prisoner con works on many emotional levels. The Badger Game relies on fear or embarrassment as the Pigeon Drop does on greed or helpfulness. The Spanish Prisoner will play to a certain level of greed in the mark, but well-run cons of this nature always look for a ‘good’ or ‘noble’ emotional hook too. By way of example, the Nigerian Bank Scam often targets religious organizations and pitches the need for co-religionists to assist each other in times of trouble.
The actual term for the con, the Spanish Prisoner, harks back to a noble hook or pitch used in the scam during early 1900s America. This con was run successfully throughout the African-American community of that era. In the scam, a ‘Creole-looking’ individual, who was actually a Spanish nobleman, was supposedly in jail on trumped up ‘Jim Crow’-type charges. If he is bailed out, he could contact his embassy, clear his name, and richly reward the people who freed him. As you can see, this con played its marks on many emotional levels; greed for ‘justly’ earned riches, ‘group’ solidarity, getting one over on the ‘establishment’, and many others. When tweaking or customizing the Spanish Prisoner for your campaigns and adventures it is important to remember that the ‘prisoner’ need not be a person, it can just as easily be an object or information. A map, a logbook, a database, an answer, all can hold the promise of riches in a con artist’s plan.
The scam may even take on a life of its own. A story concocted by a rogue as part of a con job could gain wide currency. Others, completely unaware of the origins of a particular story, may truly believe that a certain special data disc holds the key to a fortune, even though a con artist for some long ago scam invented both the disc and the fortune. As a ‘long’ con, the Spanish Prisoner requires the con artists to stay in contact with their marks for lengthy periods of time. While the chance of being found out is greater, that danger is somewhat offset by the bigger ‘score’ this style of con can provide. Like the Badger Game, if the play in the Spanish Prisoner is handled properly the mark won’t even know he’s been swindled. US List members may remember the elaborate con job played on Robert Shaw at the end of The Sting. That con game, which involved paying for inside information regarding the outcome of horse races, used a variant of the Spanish Prisoner.
You may be familiar with this con game under another name, the Ponzi Scheme. Strictly speaking, this old con game uses the money received from later marks to pay off earlier marks. Paying off on promises made to the early mark acts as a kind of advertising to draw in later marks. By bragging about the money they’ve received, these early marks are actually helping the con artist scam his later marks!
The con artist could be selling phony stocks, trading certificates, investment plans, whatever items or services he promises will provide the marks a ‘great’ return on their ‘investment’. The con artist sets up a payment ‘pyramid’ in which a portion of the moneys received from later marks is given to early marks. Because the growth of the payment ‘pyramid’ is not constrained in any manner; i.e., everyone wants in on a ‘good’ thing, the scam will eventually collapse when enough new marks cannot be roped in to pay off the older marks.
During this ‘long’ con, the scam artist will be in close contact with many, many marks. After all, the more marks he can rope in, the longer the scheme can operate and the bigger score he can carry away. The amount of contact and the length of time makes this type of con is very dangerous. The Pyramid or Ponzi Scheme can also be carefully crafted to skirt the boundaries of what is legal or illegal. The longer the con artist can operate in that gray area, the longer he has to make money. On some worlds and in some cultures, Pyramid or Ponzi Schemes may not (yet) be illegal and the results of those schemes could be far out of proportion to the wishes of the original scammers. During the early 1990’s, a series of Pyramid Schemes run in Albania destroyed that nation’s economy and helped lead to the later problems in Kosovo.
Legal Pyramid and Ponzi Schemes include lotteries and social security programs. In lotteries, a portion of the money received from lottery players (marks) is paid out to winners while the lottery operator pockets the rest. By limiting the number of winners to a small portion of the players, the payment ‘pyramid’ remains stable. In (US) social security programs, money is taxed from current workers and paid to current retirees. Because of death rates, the workers will outnumber retirees and again the payment ‘pyramid’ (supposedly) remains stable.
Pyramid or Ponzi Schemes sometimes develop spontaneously. The Dutch Tulip craze, the South Seas investment bubble, and the more recent Dot-Bomb bust are all examples of this. Sharp operators who recognize these ‘natural’ pyramid schemes early can ride the resulting bubble for great profit. Including a con or scam in a campaign or adventure doesn’t mean that the PCs must be either marks or con artists. There are plenty of ways in which the PCs can be involved in a con or scam without risking their morals or money.
The PCs could become involved along the many edges of a con. They could find themselves investigating what may be a pyramid scheme. They may be hired as ‘frighteners’ in a Badger Game or tricked into ‘holding the bag’ in a Pigeon Drop. They could be hired to pick and deliver the worthless ‘mcguffin’ in the Spanish Prisoner con. Whatever scams you use in your sessions and however your PCs are involved, I hope this little primer proves to be of some help.