This a very old scam and is the origin of the modern Nigerian 419 scams (also called the Advance Fee scam) and shows that some scams have roots from a long time ago.
The Spanish Prisoner scam is a confidence trick originating in the late 19th century. The fraudster tells the victim that he is (or is in correspondence with) a wealthy person of high estate who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity.
The fraudster offers to let the victim put up some of the funds, with a promise of a greater monetary reward upon release of the prisoner plus another incentive such as gaining the hand of a beautiful woman who is the prisoner’s daughter.
After the victim has paid the ransom, he is told that further difficulties have arisen, and more money is needed. The fraudster continues to press for more money until the victim is cleaned out or refuses to pay any more.
A key element of the Spanish Prisoner scam is an emphasis on secrecy. The Police cannot be involved and identity of the prisoner cannot be revealed. The scammer will claim to have chosen the victim, based on his reputation for honesty and straight dealing.
This fraud came to be known as the “Spanish Prisoner” because, often, the letter-writer claimed to be trapped in a Spanish jail, for reasons arising from the Spanish-American War. The letter was written on thin, blue, cross-lined paper, such as is used for foreign letters, and is written as fairly well-educated foreigners write English, with a word misspelled here and there, and an occasional foreign idiom.
In the advance-fee fraud, a valuable item must be ransomed from customs or an impound or lost-baggage service before the authorities realise its value and block the repossession.
In the Nigerian 419 scam, a relative of a deposed African dictator or Libyan leader or Iraqi leader (or similar countries leaders) offers to transfer items (gold or diamonds or bearer bonds or just cash) worth millions of dollars to the victim in return for small initial payments to cover release fees and other expenses.
Another variation spreads via hijacked social media accounts, where a message is sent to all the social media contacts of the victim, claiming that the victim is in a foreign country, has been robbed, and needs money to be sent immediately to pay for hospital bills or airline tickets or to bribe the Police in order to escape the country etc. and paid by Western Union or similar money transfer agents.
This scam is very well know but large numbers of scammers still use it in some form and people still fall for it in and in total lose hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
If you have any experiences with scammers, spammers or time-waster do let me know, by email.