How To Trick an Online Scammer Into Carving a Computer Out of Wood

Ingenious acts of cyber-vengeance

A vicious and intriguing cyber-war has broken out in the Spamosphere, or more specifically in what I’d call the “Scamosphere.”

I’m speaking of the emergence of “scam-baiters,” the avengers of the Scamosphere, who’ve arisen to take on “419” con artists, the scammers who pose in spam e-mails as agents for the widows of deposed finance ministers of Dubai or vice chairmen of the Ivory Coast Cocoa Trading Board. The ones who promise you a share of a multimillion-dollar “inheritance” stashed in a Swiss bank account in return for your help in getting access to it by posing as the legal beneficiary. The ones who then try to persuade you (and it’s amazing how many are blinded enough by greed to believe the pitch) to fork over one “advance fee” after another to “estate attorneys,” “private bank managers,” and other fictional “facilitators”—until you awaken to the fact that you’ve been taken or are broke. (The name 419 comes from the number of the section of the Nigerian criminal code that applies to fraud, though the advance-fee fraud is actually a variation on the centuries-old “Spanish Prisoner” ploy.)

Scam-baiters have set out to reverse this dynamic, to turn the tables on the scammers. The legions of scam-baiters seek to con the con artists, often with remarkable artistry of their own. They tease the scammers with promises of payments that don’t arrive, with wired funds from banks that don’t exist, with Western Union money transfers that go awry. They lead the scammers on wild-goose chases to pick up checks from couriers who don’t materialize, insist the scammers perform ridiculous stunts, and ask them to pose with demeaning signs to prove their commitment to the transaction. Blinded by the same greed that blinds their marks, the scammers take the scam- baiters’ bait and, often as not, end up as heads on the virtual wall in the scam-baiting Web sites’ “trophy rooms.”

The scam-baiters seem almost like a spontaneous evolutionary response to a threatening predatory species— think of them as the T cells of the Internet’s immune system. But they can also seem an embodiment of the devolution of discourse and increase in abuse and invective that’s come to be known as “cyber-disinhibition”—the tendency of people to engage in hostile interactions when they aren’t inhibited by face-to-face contact.

Are the scam-baiters Jedi-like cyber-guardians taking up arms against the Web’s Dark Side, Spam-scam, or are they cyber-vigilantes engaging in vicious pranks that can, at times, border on racism?

On first entering the scam-baiting Web sites, one picks up the good-natured vibe of the elaborate fake bookie joints in movies such as The Sting—the hum and buzz of counter-con artists taking pleasure in the game. The chatter ranges from the relatively innocent-sounding “nov 7. i got somebody for the first time,” with a transcript of a scam-bait string, to the more triumphalist “650 mile safari and longest insult EVER!”

“Safaris” are the trips scam-baiters lure scammers into making to remote banks to collect their advance fees, which, of course, don’t exist. Insults, the bitter imprecations hurled at the scam-baiter once the scammer realizes he’s been scammed, are prized as tokens of the baiter’s success in “owning” the scammer—driving him around the bend and provoking him to the spluttering rage of capital-letter curses: “YOU ARE GOING STUPID, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? YOU FOOLISH WHITE MONKEY AND YELLOW PIG” was the response of one “barrister” when finally copping to his humiliation. But the most valuable “trophies” are photos of scammers holding ridiculously worded signs—such as King of Retards or I am a sheep shagger—whose significance they apparently don’t recognize.

I started paying closer attention to the world of 419 scams after a phone call from a woman I know. She nervously reported that out of curiosity she’d played along with a Nigerian scam, and had just gotten an e-mail from someone called “The Professor” telling her that “diplomats” were on their way to her apartment with “documents to sign.” I advised her to e-mail the Professor and tell him she’d called the police and the FBI. The diplomats never showed up.

Still, I’d never known anyone who’d gotten in that deep—though I’d certainly seen reports of the surprising success scammers have had with otherwise intelligent pillars of society, including a former congressman who’d served on the House committee weighing Nixon’s impeachment for dirty tricks. My friend told me that she hadn’t lost any funds thus far, because she’d given them the number of a bank account with no money in it—which she realized wasn’t exactly sufficient precaution.

I was fascinated to learn that she’d actually had a phone conversation with the Professor, a shadowy figure who shows up in a number of scam e-mails and whom I imagined as a kind of cyber-Moriarty—or perhaps a cyber-Virgil leading the unwary down into the lower circles of cyber-scam hell. As I began paying more attention to cyber-scam letters—to the subtle shifts in the pitch of the messages, to the tonal and rhetorical tropes—I began thinking of the vast body of these letters as a kind of literary genre.

I was particularly taken with the characters the scammers created: the widows and orphans of murdered dictators, the troubled bank managers, the associates of Russian oil billionaires hiding their wealth from Vladimir Putin. Here was food for literary exegesis: a sprawling international cast of recurring characters worthy, if not of War and Peace, then at least of Melville’s The Confidence-Man. Like favorite characters in literature, they serve as our imaginary friends—which perhaps explains why so many lonely souls get conned by the phony plights of the scammers.

I realized that this literature, and its subdomain of folk tales, had evolving themes and memes. I noticed, for instance, a sudden epidemic of conscience-stricken “esophageal cancer” victims among the scam-letter writers, who in their “dying days” (after their disease had “defiled” all medical treatment, as one semiliterate appeal put it) had undergone conversions that had led them to ask for assistance in distributing huge but inaccessible fortunes to charity. Scam-lit had shifted its appeal from greed to altruism.

Then I saw a sudden proliferation of letters from “American soldiers” who’d found enormous hidden caches of Saddam Hussein’s (or Uday’s and Qusay’s) ill-gotten gains and hoped (with your help, which of course would be amply rewarded) to shift the funds to an offshore account rather than turn them in to the authorities. Even those elusive weapons of mass destruction have shown up in this subgenre: In one e-mail, a certain “Smith Scott,” posing (I hope) as a Marine captain in Baghdad, claimed he’d discovered nuclear weapons in “some boxes”; he’d learned about them “in the process of tortur[ing]” some terrorists, who’d then led his troops to “a cave in Karbala.”

One of the scam-baiters followed up with Captain Scott and, ignoring the boxes of money in the cave, expressed interest in the “nuclear devices.” He received a disturbingly detailed reply:

These are complete nuclear weapons, RANGING FROM Mk-I TO Mk-III, NUCLEAR TYPE-BOMBS, WIDTH 28 AND 60.25 INCHES, LENGHT 42 AND 68 INCHES, WEIGHT 2,800 AND 3,400IB, Yields 15-16 Kt AND 18, 20-23, 37, 49 Kt RESPECTIVELY.

This specificity probably shouldn’t be seen as evidence of possession of actual nuclear devices, though it might suggest where the “intelligence” on Saddam’s WMD originated. What it does show is that the Scamosphere follows the headlines.

I soon became riveted by the interaction between the scammers and the scam-baiting “community,” particularly after discovering a frenetic hub of scam-baiters from all over the world,, with its explanation of the techniques of scam-baiting, its “mentor programme” for novices, and its intriguing philosophical discussions of the ethics of the counter-con.

The 419eater site was founded in October 2003 by Mike Berry, an Englishman who makes his living as an IT technician. It wasn’t the first scam-baiting site, but it’s now one of the largest and most active. “Back then, 2002, 2003, I was getting two or three of these scam letters in my in-box per week—now it’s up to 75 or a hundred—and I would engage them in prolonged ‘straight baits,’ ” Berry told me.

A “straight bait” is the entrapment of a scammer into an interminable correspondence that leads him to believe he’s oh so close to getting his first advance fee for an inheritance transfer, but is frustrated by one after another mistake, obstacle, and miscue until he finally realizes that he’s the one being suckered. Unlike other scam-baits, which aim to embarrass the scammers, straight baits are meant to take up large amounts of scammers’ time, keeping them from doing mischief. But the process can be tedious. Soon Berry and his cohorts at 419eater began attracting the more ambitious and imaginative among the scam-baiters of the world. (The site has now grown to some 20,000 registered members, and Berry estimates that about 10 percent of them are actively engaged in conning the con artists.) And there grew up a competition among the “elite baiters” and the “master baiters” (as they enjoy calling themselves) to see who could come up with the most elaborate and ridiculous ruses to engage the would-be thieves—so-called “creative baits.”

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Ron Rosenbaum is the author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998) and Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (2006).

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