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A Con Man identifies a potential mark: someone with wealth and naivete. The con man convinces the mark that he serves a dethroned princess who is being held prisoner in, say, Spain. If the mark can come up with just a few hundred dollars, then a guard can be bribed and the princess can flee to the US (where the mark lives) in eternal gratitude.
The mark can easily part with a few hundred, and so, though he is wary, he falls far enough for the con man's smooth line. A week goes by. Two. The mark has come to understand that he's been tricked, but before that last spark of hope can die, the con man reappears with a letter from Her Majesty. She is free and in France. Now she needs a few thousand dollars for her final passage by sea, and the mark gladly shells it out.
Next, the princess might need money to bail out her mother and father, the ex-monarchs; then, she'll need to buy off a Spanish spy who has discovered her escape. The mark keeps paying for as long as the con artists can keep him fooled. The con man shows the mark photographs of the beautiful princess (who is really Dotty from the Nighthawk Diner in a ten-cent tiara). More players are brought in to act out additional roles, each earning part of the take.
Finally, the mark can be brushed off. One way to do this is for the princess to arrive, at last, on the mark's doorstep. The con man is there, too, but then the Spanish spy shows up and murders the con man. (It's an act, of course; the con man usually has a "cackle bladder" full of fake blood in his mouth, and he usually makes sure to get some of it on the mark's clothes as he falls.) The mark is terrified, and the princess runs to his side, kisses him tenderly, and tells him that she must go into exile or she will endanger his life as well as her own. And so, the mark never sees the princess again, and the con man, princess, and Spanish spy agent all split the take. In this way the Mark never realizes he was conned and doesn't go to the police. There are real-life examples of marks who discovered the con only when they were approached by the police and asked to testify.
That's the classic Spanish Prisoner. Today's updates are called Russian Bride and Save This Hooker.
It's one of The Oldest Tricks in The Book.
A variant frequently encountered on the Internet these days is the "419 Scam" (named after the relevant section of the Nigerian banking code, where some of these scams originate), in which the "prisoner" is replaced by a relative of some recently deceased Third World dictator, who asks the potential mark to help him smuggle and/or launder stolen UN aid money. Or get bank boxes out of a third country. Or steal the ill-gotten windfall profit of an over-invoiced oil contract. If you're reading this, you've probably received spam about it yourself. The total amount of over-invoiced oil on all of these supposed "lucrative" contracts probably exceeds the output of Saudi Arabia for ten years. While the two tropes are similar, in works the Spanish Prisoner scam is much more likely to drive the whole plot, while Four One Nine Scams are often used as a bit of characterization or as a joke.
- A variation of this scam is the main modus operandi of Michael Caine's character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
- Michael Caine generally plays the Prince himself, and is in exile already (though in desperate needs of funds to finance La Résistance back home) when he meets the mark (usually an unsophisticated, rich, FEMALE, American tourist). When Steve Martin comes on as Caine's apprentice of sorts, Martin takes on the role of the Prince's "special" brother to drive the mark away of her own volition once the money has been obtained. Thus, any unseemly violence (fake though it would be) is avoided entirely.
- Cleverly, David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner includes a detailed explanation of this con, the purpose of which exposition is to disguise the fact that it is not the con being performed.
- A particularly stellar Renaissance-esque example appears in The Lies Of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, with a minor noble House infamous for its brandy standing in for the prisoner.
- The big, wonderful twist? Halfway through the con the con men dress up as secret agents for the government, explain that the brandy merchant is a notorious con man and advise the mark to continue to give them money while the authorities move in to catch them. Naturally they advise the mark to tell no one about this, lest the "con men" suspect something and run.
- That twist is a variation on a common scam. Once you have figured out that you can take the mark once, send in accomplices who let the mark think they are getting the con men arrested.
- In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Mr. Wednesday names this con as an old favorite of his, though he never describes it in detail.
- An Inspector Morse mystery centered around the Russian Bride version of this scam.
Live Action TV
- Leverage, "The Stork Job" - the mark of the week is in with the Russian Mafia, and runs a version using Serbian war orphans where the prospective parents have to keep paying "overhead" costs. Sophie explicitly compares the scheme to the Spanish Prisoner.
- A That Mitchell and Webb Look episode featured three millionaires (all suffering from a speech impediment that made them sound exactly like automated call generators) who actually were handing out massive yachts for just a small fee to people whose phone number had been selected at random. They just did not understand why everyone kept hanging up on them.
- Hustle - a few times over the course of the series, but most notably in season 7, they pulled this off comfortably against a new mark they'd not been expecting AND against the other three marks they'd had on the hook at the beginning of the episode, but who had not since been mentioned, earning them a triumphant record of pulling off the Spanish Prisoner against more marks in one day than any other crew.
- Burn Notice has one guy taken in by an interesting version of this particular con: he's convinced to invest in a new club in Cuba (highly illegal for US residents), necessitating a cash-only transaction. He's convinced by profits shown from an earlier investment (actually a Ponzi Scheme) and just when he's called to meet with the investor to discuss profits, the FBI conducts a sting operation, hustling him out the back door while they arrest the investor. Of course, the "FBI" was in on the plot, so he asks Michael to step in and get his money back (lest he incur the wrath of the loan sharks he got the money from in the first place), so Michael pulls a more complicated version of the same scheme on the con man.