The pigeon drop is a type of confidence game
. From my own experience, here's an example of how the pigeon drop works:
When I was a freshman in college, I was approached in downtown Atlanta by a naive man with a foreign accent. He asked me for directions to somewhere in town, and I gave him the best directions I could. He said that he had just arrived in America from Jamaica, and somehow in our conversation he got around to showing me his life savings: a large wad of bills wrapped in a handkerchief. I advised him that carrying his money like that wasn't a safe thing to do, and that he should put his money in the bank instead. "But what if I need my money?" he asked, "How will I get it?" I explained that here in America we had ATM's—devices that would dispense your cash back to you on demand. He was incredulous. So, being an obliging sort, I went to an ATM nearby for a demonstration.
He watched over my shoulder with astonishment as I inserted my card, keyed in my PIN, and received my cash. His admiration for devices such as these, and indeed, for the entire U.S. banking system, was unbounded. He resolved to get a bank account as soon as possible. But he had some business to take care of first, and could I possibly do him a favor in the meantime?
It seemed that there was a prostitute he wanted to visit in a nearby building, but my warnings about American crime had made him nervous. He didn't want to go inside the building with his life savings stuck in a handkerchief down the front of his pants. What if he were robbed? Would I mind terribly holding onto the bulk of his money while he went inside?
I agreed. He brought out his wad of money again, unwrapped the handkerchief from around it, and insisted that I put my cash and my ATM card into the bundle along with his money, so that his money would be just as safe as mine. I complied, and he rewrapped the handkerchief around all of our money making a thick bundle. He then stuffed the handkerchief bundle down the front of my pants on the grounds that it would be safer there. He said that he would be back in thirty minutes to get his money, thanked me profusely, and went up into the building, leaving me waiting on the street corner below.
After an hour had gone by, I went into the building and asked the guard at the front desk whether he had seen my friend. He said that he may have seen someone by that description getting into a car around the corner of the building, but he wasn't sure. I told him how worried I was about this guy because I was holding all of his money for him. To show the guard what I was talking about, I reached down the front of my pants, drew out the bundle, and unwrapped the handkerchief to find... a wad of newspaper.
My Jamaican friend had learned well. He withdrew a total of $400 from my bank account using my ATM card and PIN before I could get the card cancelled. Except for $50, my ATM losses were reimbursed by the bank, though the bank had to be reminded rather forcefully about American banking regulations to make it happen. My cash, of course, was gone for good.
The movie "The Sting," starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, opens with an example of the pigeon drop con. In "The Sting," the mark (that is, the target of the con) sees what he thinks is a foiled mugging. The near-victim of the mugging (a con man) claims to be delivering money for the mob, but he has been wounded in the leg during the mugging and can't deliver his $5,000 on time. He offers the mark $100 to deliver the $5,000 to a particular address within the next ten minutes. The mark accepts and starts to tuck the money into his jacket pocket, but a passer-by (also part of the con) convinces him that the mugger may be lying in wait around the corner, and the mark should hide his money more carefully than that. The con proceeds from there much as in the preceding story, with both the handkerchief and the front-of-the-pants gimmicks making an appearance. The mark speeds away in a cab, chuckling to himself about making an easy $5,000 at the victim's expense. He then opens the handkerchief. Hilarity ensues.
Here's another variation on the pigeon drop scam. A woman starts a casual conversation with you while you're sitting in a park. After a few minutes of conversation, another woman comes up and asks whether a briefcase she has found in the park belongs to either of you. Both of you say no. The woman you have been conversing with suggests that the questioner open it to see whether there is any identification inside. Inside the briefcase is a large sum of cash and a note implying that this money came from an illegal activity like gambling or drugs. Trying to return the money yourselves is therefore out of the question. One of the women suggests dividing up the money amongst yourselves, but the other woman is worried. She says that she works for a lawyer, and she will call him to see whether there is any way that the three of you can somehow divide the money legally.
She whips out her cellphone and calls her lawyer boss. She says that the lawyer says that you three can legally divide the money amongst yourselves if you put the cash in escrow with the lawyer for the next 30 days while he tries to locate the true owner. But before you give the found cash to the lawyer, each of you should put a certain amount of your own money in with the found cash to show that you are all financially responsible and acting in good faith.
The other two women put $2,000-$3,000 into the briefcase, then drive you to your bank so you can get a similar amount of money to put in with theirs. They drive you to the lawyer's office. They send you into the building with the briefcase full of money while they park the car. The lawyer's address is bogus, the women never return, and, needless to say, the briefcase you are holding is not the briefcase you think you are holding.
"The Sting," movie. 1973.