Pigeon drop

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Shredded paper, which has been used as a decoy for cash in this scam[1]

The pigeon drop (also known as Spanish Handkerchief) is a confidence trick in which a mark, or "pigeon", is persuaded to give up a sum of money in order to secure the rights to a larger sum of money, or more valuable object.[2][3][4][page needed] One of the con artists will typically claim to have found the money or valuable on the ground just before talking to the mark, or will even leave it on the ground and pretend to happen upon it at the same time as the mark, hence the term "drop."


Typically the scam involves two or three con artists working as a team. One will arrange to "find" a valuable item along with the mark in a public place, such as by leaving it on the ground for the mark to find or approaching them with it in hand. An accomplice will pass by and enter the conversation. One of the con artists will pose as someone knowledgeable and trustworthy, such as a lawyer, banker, or businessperson. They will say that they can facilitate the trio cashing in on the item legitimately, suggesting that they split the proceeds three ways. However, they will ask that each member of the group put up some money first, such as to prove financial solvency as a legal requirement or to demonstrate that they can be trusted with the item during the process. Sometimes they will consult a third accomplice to pose as their boss, a disconnected official, etc., and have them state the requirement to put up money instead. The unauthoritative con artist will show enthusiasm and hand over cash, encouraging the mark to do the same. The con artists will then find some excuse to leave with the mark's money. They may pretend to leave the valuable with a third party such as a bank in the process, or they may leave the valuable in the hands of the mark. If they leave it with the mark, the mark will either discover that the valuable is worthless, or that the con artists have swapped it at some point with a worthless decoy.[5][6]

Even if the con artists pretend to enter banks or stores in the course of the con, they typically avoid doing so in practice to stay away from surveillance cameras.[5] They may arrange for the group to park behind such buildings and then walk around to the front, leaving the victim in the car, to trick them into thinking the fraudsters are going inside.[7][8]


This con strings together a series of coincidences that each reinforce the apparent legitimacy of the situation: finding the item, meeting the first and then second con artist, discovering that one of the con artists can "help," and possibly getting the simulated confirmation of legitimacy from an apparently distant and official third party. If the mark believes that any one of these is an organic occurrence, it strongly suggests they all are, and it then becomes almost impossible for them to question the scam. Furthermore, the presence of another supposed bystander, the "non-authority" con artist who also puts forward money, exploits the willingness of people to trust a partner who exposes themselves to the same risks, and to believe what they think the people around them believe. On top of all of this, the mark does not exchange money for nothing but rather for something they believe is worth more, reassuring them.[6]


There are records of this con going back to at least the 18th century: there are a number of legal cases from the 1780s and '90s in Britain concerning "ring dropping," where a ring was used as the valuable. However, the con may have a longer history than this in Britain outside of the court records; although it is commonly criminalized today in many countries, it was not always treated as such in common law countries because the victim hands over money willingly, and thus was not always seen as a matter for the courts to handle. In 1704, a King's Bench judge acquitted a swindler who stole money by posing as a messenger on these grounds, claiming that if "one man [makes] a fool of another" it is merely a civil matter. It only became a crime in Britain later in the 18th century, with efforts including a 1757 statute passed by Parliament against "acquisitions by false pretenses," and a judicial precedent set in 1795 treating "larceny by trick" as criminal. This was in the larger context of the development of contract and commercial law in that environment, underscoring the increasing significance of commerce in legal culture.[6][9]


A variant called the "fawney rig" or "ring drop" dates to at least the 1780s in England but has continued to crop up around the world as recently as the 2010s.[6][10] In this basic version of the pigeon drop, a lone con artist pretends to find a ring on the sidewalk in view of the mark, possibly in a purse with a jeweler's receipt proving that it is made of gold, set with real diamonds, etc. They then approach the mark and typically offer to sell it to them for what sounds like an excellent price, saying they lack the time or inclination to find a more suitable dealer. If the mark takes the bait, they will discover that the ring is made of cheap brass, its jewels if any are fake, and any notes accompanying it are forged, and that they have in fact paid far more than its true value. The "fawney" in the name of this trick, probably from the Irish fáinne for "ring," is likely the source of the modern English word "phoney."[10][11][12][13]

In the late 1980s in New York City, a version of this scam known as the "Spanish Lotto" became popular, where con artists would prey on Hispanic marks using a supposed winning lottery ticket. The con artist to approach the mark with the ticket would pretend to be an illegal immigrant with minimal English skills who was unable to cash the ticket due to their immigration status and was seeking a Spanish-speaking lawyer for help. Their accomplice would pose as such a lawyer; they would walk past in formal clothes and the first accomplice would flag them down. The "lawyer" would go to a pay phone and call a third accomplice posing as a lottery official. They would confirm that the ticket was winning, but state that if the bearer was not an American citizen, they could only cash in the ticket if two citizens accompanied them and showed large sums of cash to prove that they had no reason to rob the bearer. The "immigrant" would offer both the "lawyer" and the mark large rewards from their ticket winnings if the two of them would serve as the citizens to help them collect. After having the "lawyer" and mark pool cash in an envelope along with the ticket, the "immigrant" would hand it to the mark for safe keeping, and then find an excuse to depart from the mark temporarily with the "lawyer" and escape. The mark would find that the ticket was worthless and the envelope had been swapped for one filled with pieces of regular paper, such as bank deposit slips. NYC police estimated in 1991 that there were over a dozen teams plying this scam in the city.[14][6] In the late 2010s, this version of the con was still making appearances as far afield as Illinois.[1]

There was a rash of instances in the early-mid 2010s in Charleston, South Carolina; each would begin with a con artist approaching an elderly mark in the parking lot of a bank holding a bag filled with apparent money. They would ask the mark if they had dropped the bag, and an accomplice would then walk by whom they would ask the same question. In time the con artists would come to the conclusion that the group might as well split the money three ways, but would come up with some reason why everyone needed to put up their own money first, such as to prove good faith or to check that the money in the bag was not counterfeit. The con artists would pool everyone's money in the bag, then find a way to flee, sometimes leaving the mark unwittingly holding a bag of newspaper in its place.[5][15][16]

In popular culture[edit]

The 2003 film Matchstick Men opens with two of the main characters performing a pigeon drop, posing as IRS agents.[17]

The 1987 film House of Games contains a pigeon drop in the second act.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Pigeon Drop Scam". Village of Romeoville. Romeoville, Illinois. 2016. Retrieved July 1, 2023. The offender then left the victim and the victim opened the bag and it only contained shredded paper, and no money.
  2. ^ Swierczynski, Duane (2003). The complete idiot's guide to frauds, scams, and cons. Alpha Books. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-02-864415-8.
  3. ^ Paul J. Zak (November 13, 2008). "How to Run a Con". Psychology Today. Retrieved November 14, 2013.
  4. ^ Arrington, Rick (2007). Crime prevention : the law enforcement officer's practical guide. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7637-4130-3. OCLC 65537949.
  5. ^ a b c Bird, Allyson (June 4, 2012). "Police warn of 'found money' scam". Post and Courier. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d e Rose, Carol M. (1995). "Trust in the Mirror of Betrayal" (PDF). Boston University Law Review. 75 (531): 546–550. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  7. ^ "Woman gets scammed out of $25,000 in 'pigeon drop' scam". ABC13 News. Friendswood, Texas. May 26, 2023. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  8. ^ "Wisconsin woman loses $2,000 after being 'completely fooled' by wallet scam". Fox News. September 5, 2017. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  9. ^ Hadden, Tom (August 3, 1967). "The Origin and Development of Conspiracy to Defraud". The American Journal of Legal History. 11 (1): 30–32. doi:10.2307/844503. JSTOR 844503. Retrieved July 2, 2023.
  10. ^ a b McNally, Frank (May 9, 2013). "A ring of untruth". The Irish Times. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  11. ^ Lighter, J. E. (February 1998). "Word Improvisation". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  12. ^ Tamony, Peter (April 1937). "The Origin of 'Phoney'". American Speech. 12 (2): 108–110. doi:10.2307/452617. JSTOR 452617. S2CID 147483080. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  13. ^ Dickens (Jr.), Charles (1879). Dickens's Dictionary of London. ISBN 0703000187. Then there the ring dropping trick, by which a dupe is induced to buy a worthless ring, but purporting to be a diamond, by a man who pretends to find it just in front of the dupe, but alleges he has neither time nor inclination to seek a better market.
  14. ^ Tierney, John (May 17, 1991). "In This Lotto, All They Need Is a Dollar and a Dupe". The New York Times. New York City, NY. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  15. ^ Davis, Kimberleii (July 6, 2016). "80-Year-Old Woman Scammed Out of $10K in 'Pigeon Drop' Con". ABC Columbia. Richland County, S.C. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  16. ^ Phillips, Patrick (October 17, 2014). "Deputies release surveillance images in scam targeting 82-year-old". WCSC. Charleston County, S.C. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  17. ^ Ebert, Robert (September 12, 2003). "Matchstick Men". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved July 2, 2023. As the movie opens, Roy and Frank are playing a sophisticated form of the Pigeon Drop, in which victims are convinced they have a tax refund coming, and then visited by Frank and Roy themselves, posing as federal agents who want cooperation in catching the tax frauds.
  18. ^ Holleman, Joe (April 1, 2011). "Sherpa's Top 10: Best con artist movies". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved July 2, 2023. Here is the start of a pigeon-drop scam from 'House of Games.'

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