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The details vary, but the usual story is that a person, often a government or bank employee, knows of a large amount of unclaimed money or gold which he cannot access directly, usually because he has no right to it.
Such people, who may be real but impersonated people or fictitious characters played by the con artist, could include, for example, the wife or son of a deposed African leader who has amassed a stolen fortune, a bank employee who knows of a terminally ill wealthy person with no relatives, or a wealthy foreigner who deposited money in the bank just before dying in a plane crash (leaving no will or known next of kin), and similar characters.
In that con, businessmen were contacted by an individual allegedly trying to smuggle someone connected to a wealthy family out of a prison in Spain.
An advance-fee scam is a type of fraud and one of the most common types of confidence trick.
The scam typically involves promising the victim a significant share of a large sum of money, in return for a small up-front payment, which the fraudster requires in order to obtain the large sum.
One variant of the scam may date back to the 18th or 19th centuries, as a very similar letter, entitled "The Letter from Jerusalem", is seen in the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, a former French criminal and private investigator. One of these, sent via postal mail, was addressed to a woman's husband, and inquired about his health.
Another variant of the scam, dating back to circa 1830, appears very similar to what is passed via email today: "Sir, you will doubtlessly be astonished to be receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favour from you...", and goes on to talk of a casket containing 16,000 francs in gold and the diamonds of a late marchioness. It then asked what to do with profits from a $24.6 million investment, and ended with a telephone number.
Some scammers have accomplices in the United States and abroad that move in to finish the deal once the initial contact has been made.