James morton

The Financial Conduct Authority has been broadcasting radio advertisements warning against scams. The listener is told to choose between Pitch A and Pitch B and decide which is the con. Personally, I thought they both sound like scams. Curiously, and quite by chance, I recently came across a scam of which I had never heard.

Back in the 1880s, sentences of six months were handed out for what was known as the Painted Bird Swindle. It was a multi-handed operation. Someone caught a sparrow and dyed its feathers. It was then given to a boy who told a passer-by he had found it and wondered whether it was worth anything. Along came a third man to say it was a piping bullfinch and worth a lot of money; the mug had better buy it before someone else stepped in.

If need be, a fourth man turned up and offered to buy the worthless bird with the third man urging the mug on and telling the fourth man he was too late. The mug might be persuaded to pay up to £4 or leave his watch as a deposit.

That swindle died out, replaced by cons such as the Irish Will Fraud, in which the punter is persuaded by strangers to deposit money against the opportunity to enter a cast-iron scheme. Cast-iron losing scheme, that is. It ran for over 60 years and possibly still does today.

Later came the Eiffel Tower sting. Victor Lustig managed to sell it for scrap twice in as many months.

In the 1920s the great American conman Joseph ‘Yellow Kid’ Weil repackaged the Painted Bird as the Valuable Dog swindle, which was exactly the same as the bird but with a dog as the bait. He ran it for 40 years. Variations were particularly popular in small towns in America and Australia.

Key words such as ‘act now or lose it’ should sound warning bells. Nothing has changed in the past 120 years – only the sophistication of the scheme and the size of sum the mug can lose.

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor