Timeline Tuesday: A Bogus Detective Agency

Modern attempts to defraud the credulous by offering membership in a group with accompanying benefits in exchange for an upfront payment have long roots. The Omaha Daily Bee on August 13, 1887, exposed a bogus detective agency that offered the chance to become a sleuth and perform “secret service” in return for a $10 payment. The Bee said:

“It is called the State Secret Service association with headquarters at Lincoln. Numerous citizens of Omaha have received confidential letters within the past week informing them their names have been sent in to the agency as persons peculiarly and particularly fitted for secret service. They go on to say that the characters of all parties receiving these confidential communications have been investigated, and they have been found ‘clean and trustworthy,’ that the association has been urged by influential business men in the community where they reside to secure their services if possible, and they earnestly hope for a favorable reply, inasmuch as out of some twenty names suggested for Omaha, ‘you are the only one we deem it advisable to communicate with.’ It should be remembered by the reader that about fifty individuals have received this self same letter.”

The letter detailed the benefits of membership in the association, “which not only consists of a regular annual salary, paid on the last day of each year, (in your mind) but in perquisites and fees without number; the emoluments of a single year, in many instances running into thousands of dollars. Then as an irresistible inducement to join these criminal hunters, the letter adds: ‘On receipt of your favorable response, accompanied by a $10 note as an assurance of good faith, we will send you a certificate, signed by the president and secretary, and chief of the association, stamped with the official seal of the state, which will entitle you to all the information accumulated by our special bureau here and to all the rights, privileges and benefits of the association. Further, upon the advice of an[d] acceptance of our proposition we will communicate with you with reference to a piece of work to be done in Omaha, for which you are especially adapted.'”

The letter concluded by urging an immediate answer because “the accumulating work in Omaha demands attention forthwith, and a good representative must be installed without further delay.” The Bee said, “Of course, that this whole business is a fraud and a bilk from beginning to end, is patent to everyone with a modicum of brains, and the one and sole object is to get possession of the $10 . . . [I]t is humiliating to state that several suckers have already been found here, and there is no telling how many more will gulp down the glittering lure.”

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