Today in the History of Swindles we look back to the origins of the cyber-swindle.
Many hands are wrung at the prospect of larger and more complex swindles made possible by today’s fast-paced, technology-based, privacy invas’d society. Almost 300,000 people—the population of Omaha Nebraska—reported being victims of Internet crime in 2008, and there is speculation that there may have been several other victims who live in places other than Omaha.
What hath Al Gore wrought? Other than tricking kids into learning about the Oregon Trail, pre-Internet computers seem so innocent. In fact, computer-based scamming is as old as computers themselves.
The first computer scam was perpetuated in the basement of Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) by physics professor/inventor John Vincent Atansasoff on graduate student and fellow inventor Clifford Berry some time in 1942. Atansasoff and Berry had together designed and built the Atansasoff-Berry computer, widely regarded as first electronic computing machine. The machine weighed 700 pounds, had 280 vacuum tubes, an entire mile worth of wire and was impossible for anyone over the age of 35 to turn on. Using a 50-bit binary, fixed-point number system,the ABC had roughly the computing power of a Casio calculator watch, although it took almost an entire week to use it to write the word “Boob,” and another six months for the inventors to recognize that it could be used for anything else.
The first swindle took place when Atansasoff suggested to Berry that he use the ABC to calculate how many hours he had worked so Atansasoff could note it on Berry’s work-study sheet. While Berry set to work calculating, Atansasoff snuck off and eloped with Berry’s girlfriend, put Berry’s parents into a retirement home, bought their old house and raised several children. Diaries kept by Berry reveal this to be the end of their working relationship, and he ended up receiving no pay and only 2 credits toward his eventual degree in Hotel Management and Hospitality. Berry would get his revenge years later by encasing Atanasoff in carbonite with what appears to be an Emmentaler wreath around his neck.
Other aspects of Internet swindling—the hacking, the anonymity, the bad grammar—predate computers all together.
One particular predecessor to the email virus was born in 1937 in Schenectady, New York. A young orderly at a hospital for criminally mundane named Marshall Spyware robbed 114 private residences by knocking on the door dressed like he was there to deliver a Western Union singing telegram. To the initial delight and eventual irritation of the homeowners, Spyware would sing and sashay around the house, stealing as he went and then refuse to leave. Spyware also took the opportunity to place large poster advertisements for weight-gain formulas and natural male enhancement (then just called “liquor”) in front of things that people in the home might have been reading. He was caught after he was rendered unable to run away due to a nasty ankle sprain he suffered while attempting a particularly difficult fouetté en tournant while singing “Chinatown My Chinatown,” and trying to pocket a Chippendale armoire.
It is well established that the difficulty of tracing an email address makes email swindles much trickier than their mail-fraud predecessors, but what has largely been largely ignored is that the end of colonialism has also opened up swindling possibilities unthinkable a century ago. Back when Nigeria was a protectorate of the British crown, asking for loans for royalty was an incoherent request, as British royalty was on the money. The royal family usually just paid for things by standing profile for a moment and walking out, until they realized this created rather a fair amount of embarrassment for any member of the House of Windsor who needed to buy topical cream for a rash, and started using peapod.com.
In summary, the Internet has opened worlds of knowledge and vulgarity unimaginable to our prehistoric ancestors, who had more important things to worry about–like walking upright. As Associate Professor of 21st Century Ethics at California University of Pennsylvania Milton Newbar noted in an email interview, “You really can’t be too careful these days. I, for example, applied for a job at a so-called ‘California University’ and now I live just south of Pittsburgh. Today’s Internet user has to remain vigilant when he or she sends out personal information. Also that sounds like a great investment opportunity; attached please find my name, credit card numbers, Social Security number and shoe size.”