Over the past few years, Berry says, he’s induced scammers to write out entire novels by hand, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy and most of the Harry Potter series; persuaded them to get tattoos (including one of the logo of the Holy Church of the Tattooed Saint); duped them into booking international flights and expensive hotel rooms to meet with his no-show personae; had them listen over the phone as Berry—who was supposedly just about to deliver that much-promised, many-times-delayed money transfer—faked his own death; and, mercilessly, made one of the scammers fall in love with Berry in his online guise as the actress Gillian Anderson.
I asked Berry how he managed to persuade a scammer to write out a Harry Potter novel.
“Well,” Berry said, “he first wrote me with the usual Swiss-bank-account scam letter, and I then told him that I worked for a firm that did handwriting analysis, and we were looking for people to write out samples of their handwriting, and that we paid $30 per page. Needless to say, he was eager to maximize his profit, and I suggested Harry Potter might be a good source. It must have kept him busy for a while.”
And he must have been a bit disappointed when he shipped his manuscript off never again to hear from the “handwriting analyst.”
As time passed, Berry’s creative engagements with the scammers became more and more elaborate. To my mind, his greatest achievement is the “Commodore 64” scam-bait, which I would not hesitate to call a scam-baiting work of art. In the hands of a master, a particularly ingenious, devious, and multilayered scam-bait is nothing less than an epistolary coup du théâtre.
The Commodore 64 counter-scam—which opens Berry’s book Greetings in Jesus Name!, a compilation of baits and tips for newbies—began when Berry replied to an advance-fee-scam letter from an African who was “sitting on millions” and needed help getting access to it. Using the pseudonym “Derek Trotter” (after a British TV personality), Berry brushed aside the initial scam “deal” and claimed to represent an art gallery and foundation that sponsored promising sculptors. He suggested that if the scammer knew anyone interested in art, he should encourage him to apply for a scholarship.
When one “John Boko” (the same scammer, Berry believes) responded with interest a few days later, Trotter sent him elaborate specifications, along with a photograph of a cartoon cat and dog (from a British TV show) perched on a couch as the subject that had to be carved in wood—preferably wood that was “polished smooth” (the sign, of course, of all good art)—and sent to the UK to win the scholarship. Boko produced a weirdly convincing replica of the cat and dog. But when the expensive-to-ship carving arrived, Trotter claimed to be dismayed and disappointed to learn that it did not meet the precisely prescribed proportions, and in an e-mail to Boko, he suggested the sculpture might have suffered “shrinkage” during shipping. He accompanied his complaint, in a subsequent e-mail, with a trick photograph of the sculpture sitting next to a ruler to demonstrate that it didn’t meet the specifications.
Trotter told Boko he regretted this unfortunate, unaccountable turn of events, but the foundation had strict specifications. Still, he thought that he could wangle him another chance. He offered Boko a special commission that he knew would earn him the scholarship his talent deserved. It turned out that Boko was still interested. He accepted a new challenge to produce a wood sculpture (“polished smooth”) of a Commodore 64 computer, complete with raised keyboard and faithfully sculpted letters on the keys. The well-baited, totally hooked “sculptor” got back to work and succeeded in crafting a wooden replica of the Commodore. He even sent Trotter a photograph of it, a photo that has a Warholesque aura and makes the object seem like an exemplar of some yet-to-be-named genre—“folk techno,” maybe?
Once again Boko shipped off his highly polished work of art and, after a few delays, the package arrived. But after opening it, Trotter’s “brother” Rodney, the “head of sales” at the gallery, sadly informed Boko, “It appears that your package was infiltrated by a rodent, more accurately a hamster”—the carefully sculpted Commodore of the photograph was now pocked with holes. (It doesn’t quite look like it’s been gnawed by a hamster in the photo Trotter sent to Boko. One might suspect it had been bored with a drill.) “Rodney” wrote that the gnawed block of wood probably wouldn’t qualify Boko for a scholarship, but said that he’d try to get an exception made.
The next e-mail Boko got was from the “UK Police,” who reported that Derek Trotter had been arrested for fraud.
Brilliant. The Commodore 64 scam has a postmodern, meta feel to it, the counter-con being a piece of performance art about the creation of a work of art. Perhaps Boko didn’t feel that way, but the beauty of this counter-scam artistry is that it wasn’t done for money but for scripting (or con-scripting) a drama and for creating an object that’s destined to last only a short time—all of which satisfies the criteria for a work of aesthetic contemplation, if not art.
Scam over, Berry posted pictures of the sculptures in the 419eater trophy room.