Teresa Nielsen Hayden has produced a marvelous taxonomy of the con; like her, I’m not quite sure about the fine lines of the distinctions she draws (where would something like the fiddle game fall? Is it a bait-and-retraction or simple misrepresentation?), but it’s a pretty comprehensive list, covering everything from phony bonds to the tax avoidance methods sold by con artists to a ready market in people who really, truly, honestly believe that the I.R.S. is illegal.. In some cases, like that of Frank Agnable, the categories just blur; in his teens and early twenties, Agnabale, who was apparently an unflappable actor, passed himself off for two years as (among other things) a doctor and a Pan Am pilot, but his money mostly came from kiting checks, using both his impressive abilities at convincing people he was who he wasn’t and some early exploitations of the national check processing system. Agnabale now makes his living as a wildly self-promoting lecturer and security consultant; I’m not sure quite where that falls in Teresa’s taxonomy. A movie based on his life and directed by Steven Spielberg will be out this winter; I’m relatively certain I know where Hollywood falls. But Teresa has covered every major variety of con game that I know of; there’s only so many basic ways to convince people to hand over their money, although there’s a vast number of variations. One of these, the Nigerian 419 scam, is (as Teresa notes) simply an updated version of the Spanish Prisoner. The Spanish prisoner is a simple enough concept; as one of the characters puts it in David Mamet’s movie of the same name: "Fellow says, him and his sister, wealthy refugees, left a fortune in the Home Country, he got out, girl and the money stuck in Spain. Here is her most beautiful portrait. And he needs money to get her and the fortune out. Man who supplies the money gets the fortune and the girl." Only there is no money and there is no girl. The plot varies in dozens of ways, but there is always money that the con man can only get at with the mark’s assistance and financial backing. In the 419 scam (which apparently dates back to the first days of faxes), the money is usually described as having been frozen in a bank because of political unrest. The con man can’t get to it — he is, perhaps, the son of one of the faction’s leaders who fears for his life if he tries to get it out of the country — but perhaps you can.

You are the only person I have contacted and no one in my office have knowledge of this, therefore treat it as a matter of urgency.Email me to indicate your interest as you are receving this mail now,also give me your private fax/phone number and tell me best time you be around to take my call for more details or you call me on my private number as below.

Once contact is made, the con man will attempt to get access to your financial accounts.

The 419 con has been getting a lot of press lately, perhaps because of reports that Nigeria’s nascent Internet infrastructure is almost entirely the byproduct of 419 scammers. I have my doubts about how true this is. Like D-Squared, I think that if it made as much money as people think it does, someone would have made it slicker and less obvious to American targets, but it’s clearly thriving in the Internet age. It’s cheap to send out bulk email; it’s even cheap to have someone on the other end responding personally to any contacts; the ideal for the 419 scammer is to bring the mark to Nigeria (or whatever the home country is), where he or she can be bled dry. Sometimes this is as simple as just preventing the mark from going home, but other times a variant of the gypsy switch is used as a blowoff, a briefcase full of $100 bills being "dyed" so they can be smuggled out of the country. If the mark only ponies up a little more earnest money, a little more for the solvent to clean them, a little more for bribing the guards at the border, a little more for some chemicals that will work better, a little more to pay off a chemist, oh how rich he will be!

So on those rare occasions when a mark can be induced to come to the scammers, the payoff can be huge. As "Tommy Udo" demonstrated, this means that 419 scammers are almost pathetically willing to play along with any joke you choose to pull on them; if they send out ten thousand emails and a hundred people respond, they’re ahead of the game, even if ninety-nine of those people don’t end up following through. They just want to keep the mark talking. A few people have recognized this — a person with bad English trying to rook them, who won’t be willing to end the conversation until it is absolutely clear that they won’t be getting their money and who keeps trying to turn the conversation back to the script — as an opportunity for a particular sort of performance art. There’s something wonderful about the correspondence between 419 scammer "David Ehizojie" and Randolph Carter of Arkham University. Would that the people filling my inbox with ads for cut-rate Viagra and lonely seventeen-year-old cheerleaders met up with an Elder God.