December 4th, 2016

Books!

So many scammers ...

I picked this one up at a clearance table at B&N some months back … the one by me, at least, has had very little clearance action the past couple of years, which is sad, as I used to get a number of books from them. This has the “look & feel” of one of those B&N-published books, but it doesn't have any copy to that end … but what's really strange is that this hardcover had a $7.98 (pre-clearance) cover price, while the still-available paperback is going for $24.95! I'm sure there's some “story” behind this, bit it's odd having the paperback going for 3x the hardcover's price.

It is possible that there might have been international rights involved in that situation, as Beggars, Cheats, & Forgers: a History of Frauds Through the Ages' author, David Thomas, is the former Director of Technology at Britain's National Archives, and many of the characters (although hardly all) covered in the book are in the U.K. The book does have that “hobbyist” air to it, and might have been a “retirement project” for Mr. Thomas. This is not to demean the book, but it does sort of lack a “point”, and has that feel of somebody organizing a bunch of information that he's been dithering with for quite a while.

As one could surmise from the title, this deals with assorted lowlifes and scammers ...which the author points out were active long before the internet, although many of the noted scams on the web are very much based in much older schemes. It is something to think, however, that the same things worked when communication was via very slow postal channels, versus more recent fax, email, and other electronic vehicles. The book is broken up into five main thematic sections, “The Greatest Con Men”, “The Document Forgers”, “Begging Letter Writers”, “The Spanish Prisoner”, and “Sturdy Beggars”, with a time span going back as far as the medieval era, and as recently as Bernie Maddof (who was certainly the king of the rackets, having scammed billions of dollars).

While I found the book reasonably engaging, I ended up with none of my little bookmarks in it flagging places that I wanted to return to (primarily for doing this review), so I'm going to be having to cherry-pick at random here. Part of the problem is that these stories are frequently intertwined, with 20th century names coming before and after those operating, for instance, in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine in the late 1840's … and frequently filled with details (how much who paid for what, where money was borrowed from, courts that heard cases, etc., etc., etc.) that would be interest to an enthusiast for these subjects, but not adding much for the general reader. From my perspective, it also doesn't help that the author mixes in fictional characters with the historical ones (although he does note that in some cases, many of the latter figures have a lot of fictional over-lay to their stories). In the “Con Men” chapter, one thing I found interesting were the details of the schemes of Charles Ponzi … for someone whose name became synonymous with a particular type of fraud, his main run of it was remarkably brief (a couple of years at most – although when he got out of prison he started up some other illegal operations), and hardly original, with the author detailing similar frauds that preceded it. The book picks though how that worked, how it broke down, and how other scams (including Madoff's) resembled it.

The chapter on Forgers is somewhat murky, as the author brings in a lot of activities under that umbrella, from artists making fake works of old masters, to producing ephemera that would be only of interest to specific markets, even to the suggestion in H.P. Lovecraft that there existed an actual Neconomicon book (although you can hardly accuse HPL of forging that, as it's more of a literary conceit than anything) … which is set in a discussion of other (more famous, even) works which purported to be histories rather than pieces of fiction (and even dips a toe into the “who wrote Shakespeare” morass). Regrettably, some of the forgers were in positions to be able to pass judgment on the authenticity of pieces, creating some lingering question marks in several institutions (one of these forged papers at the famed Tate Gallery to provide background for faked paintings being produced by an accomplice). There is a figure detailed here who “specialized” in creating (“discovering”?) Mormon -related documents, that he knew that LDS churchmen would have a hunger for (and if you're accepting the canonical Mormon materials, it's hardly a leap to be taken in by convincing forgeries that seem to have a plausible provenance). Another of these forgers had an interesting method of “discovering” materials that he'd originated … sneaking them into otherwise-reputable antiquarian stores that had large collections of miscellanea, where he'd subsequently "find" the item and buy it from them, thus having a purchase receipt from a legitimate source.

The book delves into some technical discussion on forensics, and techniques for creating convincing “old” documents. Also covered are ways that these forgeries are discovered … such as a letter between two scientists which was dated when one of them would have been only 12 (the forger later tried to “back fill” the story with a forged note supposedly from the prodigy's tutor), or significantly wrong forms of address, or even pencil marks on the materials. The psychological implications are also dealt with, as many librarians, archivists, art collectors, etc., are quite unwilling to accept that their hard-obtained finds are not real. In many cases the forgers and their co-conspirators are strenuously defended by those who they'd scammed, because the pallor it would cast on the collections if they were proven guilty.

The “Begging Letters” is pretty much what it sounds like, sending off letters asking for money (or other things – Charles Dickens had requests for a 12-15 pound wheel of cheese and a donkey come in), and was such a problem that an organization “the Mendicity Society” was formed to fight this (subscribers were able to have the writers investigated). The author notes:

The 1840's appear to have been the peak time for begging letter writers. The means was provided because of growing literacy – from 1833 central government began to fund schools for the poorer children. The opportunity was provided by the introduction of a nationwide penny post in 1840. Suddenly, posting a letter became affordable for almost anyone and many people, including the criminally inclined, took full advantage.
I was at first confused, and then fascinated, with one of the punishments doled out to these miscreants … one of them is noted as having been “sentenced to transportation for life”, which sounded odd (frankly, my first thought was The M.T.A. Song, although that wouldn't have been a possible punishment for a century or more), but I eventually figured out that “transportation” involved being sent off to The Colonies, to the Americas prior to 1776, and to Australia thereafter. While this letter-writing practice still continues, in recent times the targets are often Lottery winners, who names are published in the papers … creating easy marks. The author notes that a new-tech version of this are the “fake charity” web sites that crop up after every disaster and purport to be some fund to aid the survivors, but with nearly no money ever finding its way to the stated beneficiaries.

The next section, on “The Spanish Prisoner” scam, is the direct ancestor of the Nigerian/419 scams that flood in-boxes world-wide. The author says the earliest example he's been able to find dates to 1797, where a fellow (later to found France's Sûreté Nationale) who had been imprisoned for a while in his youth, noticed that other prisoners were making money via letters while incarcerated:

The letters were sent to wealthy people and were allegedly from the valet of a marquis who had escaped from the dangers of the French Revolution carrying a cask filled with gold and diamonds. The marquis and his valet had found themselves pursued by revolutionaries and had been forced to throw the cask into a deep ditch. They eventually escaped abroad and the valet had come back to recover the the treasure. Unfortunately, the valet had been arrested and was in prison; he was so short of money that he would have to sell a trunk which contained a plan showing the location of the treasure-cask. However, if the recipient could send some money the valet would send him the plan and they could share the treasure. By a strange coincidence the recipients of these letters always lived close to the place where the money was hidden. … The scam was hugely successful, about 20 per cent of the letters were answered and many people came to the prison and were supplied with treasure maps.
By the 1870's the organized form of this scam had settled primarily into Spain (hence the “Spanish Prisoner”), and the gang operating in Barcelona was estimated to be netting, in the 1890's, what today would be 29 million dollars a year. For decades, efforts were made to entrap these scammers, but it appears that their money reached deep into the Spanish postal system and courts, leading to very few being arrested. Needless to say, the Nigerian descendants of this scam operate within a similar “friendly” governmental matrix … but it is amazing that, a couple of hundred years later, folks are still falling for these scams, some in a big way.

The author introduces the “Sturdy Beggars” chapter with this definition: “people who, though capable of working, choose a life of idleness and begging and develop elaborate techniques for persuading passers-by to give them money”. One might expect that this was a more realistic “career path” in earlier times, but I just found an article where it estimates that one can bring in around $15/hr doing this today. Here Thomas does a fairly detailed over-view of these folks in Britain, going as far back as 1531, with a look at the “hobo”-like subcultures that arose in various times and places. He also discusses “Rogue Literature”, which likewise dates from the mid-1500's, “describing the lives of criminals and beggars and allegedly revealing the secrets of the underworld”. Again, much of the story line here is based in the U.K., with idiosyncrasies that seem to spring straight out of a Dickens novel. Oddly, the book has an appendix dealing with street performers, although they figure in some of the material on beggars. I suppose one could argue that there's just a matter of degree between “busking” and “begging”, the former requiring at least a modicum of competency in a skill beyond psychological manipulation of the crowd.

Anyway, Beggars, Cheats, & Forgers is an interesting enough read, if for a mixed history of the less-savory types in society. As noted, this probably makes more connections with U.K. readers, as a significant portion of it deals with settings over there (the American portions are also more recent, from Ponzi in the 1920's to Madoff in the 2000's). It's a fairly brief book, running only 150 pages, so I would not recommend getting the higher-priced paperback. The new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover for as little as a penny (plus shipping), and that's probably right about where this ought to be for most folks (unless you have a passion for the subject equivalent to the author's).


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