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

Ingenious acts of cyber-vengeance

Ah yes, the trophy room. “Trophies” are what scam-baiters use to prove their mastery of the sport of exposing (and humiliating) scammers. The majority of the trophies at 419eater are photographs that the scammers (or their surrogates) have agreed to have taken of themselves (usually holding up signs) at the behest of the scam-baiters, who’ve convinced the scammers that, for one reason or another, the photos are essential to proceeding with the next step of the transaction, usually the transfer of some advance fee.

At times the trophy hunting on these scam-baiting sites can seem innocent, in a clever con-artist way. But inside the trophy rooms, I found dozens of photos of black men and women wearing expressions that ranged from compliant to glum to humiliated to defiant as they held up signs saying things such as I HAVE excess vaginal discharge. After looking at photo after photo, I felt uncomfortable—I’d lost any sense of vicarious victory over petty thieves. It was like watching self-proclaimed Great White Hunters abuse their beaters.

Some of the rhetoric of the scam-baiters is also troubling. They boast of “owning” scammers, which carries unfortunate connotations when it involves whites “owning” blacks. And there’s the mocking invective of the scam-baiting message boards and of the trophy room, a place that I sense pricks the conscience of at least some of the scam-baiters.

Or so it seems if one reads the “Ethics of Scambaiting” section on the 419eater site. The site’s webmasters take pains to disclaim racism, stating, “Racism is not permitted here … Individual posts are reported for racism from time to time, and they are always acted on speedily.” The “ethics” statement argues that scam-baiters don’t pick their targets by race, but that they also aren’t constrained by the race of their targets: They go after people of any race who seek to cause loss, pain, and suffering to innocent victims. It claims that there are a quarter of a million active scammers; that they cause $1.5 billion in losses each year, an average of $20,000 per victim; that the victims are not just people who want an illegal windfall but people who think they’re contributing to charities and orphanages; that the victims have suffered more than financial losses, having been beaten, tortured, even murdered; and that the “degrading pictures” are sent voluntarily by scammers eager for ill-gotten gains.

But then there are the counterarguments of the scammers, which the ethics section both earnestly summarizes and attempts to refute. One scammer is quoted saying:

I don’t realy call it cheating … Some body has to pay what we call retribution From what Africa went through during the Slave trade era … The west took all our resourses, Manpower, and our cultural and traditional wares … Some body will pay some how what your lineage owed

So scamming is retribution, reparation for imperialist exploitation. The fact that those colonialists who actually committed most of the crimes are not the ones paying the reparations, that the most helpless and naive members of the exploiter society (and, of course, nonexploiter societies, since the scam letters go out across the globe and are as likely to snare a Yemenite as a Brooklynite) are paying the penalty doesn’t come up. The scammers might counter that, while their victims include many innocent people, the victims of colonialism included many more innocent people—many millions slaughtered, not just scammed.

One could make a sincere argument that the 419 scams exact a certain crude, if cruel and indiscriminate, justice for miseries caused by the West—if not justice, then justifiable vengeance. But of course greed, not justice or revenge, is the chief motive of the scammers. It’s a complex issue.

The site’s final word on racism: “Eater’s anti-racism policy is sincere. We are genuinely offended by the accusation that we are racist, hence this effort to persuade you that we are not.” A lot of explanation. Do the 419eaters protest too much?

I asked Mike Berry about the accusations of racism, and he said, “We’re very careful about that. If you look at the pages of the trophy room, you see white faces too.”

You certainly won’t see many, and you will see lots of pages with only black faces. And sometimes the comments on the forum ridiculing the mugus (“fools,” in Nigerian slang) seem to cross, or at least approach, the line between ridicule and abusive contempt, or at least condescension. While much of this can be seen as the good guys driving the bad guys crazy, cumulatively it has a disturbing quality.

The more I investigated the scam-baiting world, the more complex the questions and contradictions became. I learned, for instance, of a battalion of what you might call “interventionist” scam-baiters. They claim to use Internet service providers to identify a scammer’s computer, then hack into it. They say that should they find a scam in progress, an innocent being led down the path to financial self-destruction by a con artist, they notify the victim that he’s being played, disrupting the scammer’s operation.

In other words, while scam-baiting usually involves some gray-area activities—impersonating people, manufacturing fake financial instruments—the interventionist scam-baiters are engaged in a darker gray area. And then there are troubling hints on the Web sites of an even darker practice known as “extreme anti-scamming,” which seems to involve physical attacks on scammers. Are we losing track here of who’s the criminal and who’s the victim?

There also remains the question of cyber-disinhibition. Something about the lonely void in which online interactions are conducted seems to encourage the tendency toward the extreme or abusive mode in communication—because you’re not face-to-face with the person you are berating or baiting. And the more I examined the scam-baiting community, the more troubled I was by evidence of this “online disinhibition effect,” as psychologists call it.

I would like to give the scam-baiters the benefit of the doubt. At its best, scam-baiting can be seen as a kind of communal self-defense and a recompense for damage done—and it rarely involves physical harm or incarceration. (Scam-baiting may exact a toll in time and money and humiliation, but scammers largely escape official justice.) But when I look at the photos in the 419eater trophy room, I feel something has gone a bit wrong with the evolution of the scam-baiting community. What started out as a good-natured form of rough justice has become, in some respects, a theater of cruelty.

The more one investigates scam-baiting, the more one gets entangled in an emblematic ethical and behavioral question posed by the growth of communication in cyberspace. Are we getting a new, somewhat bleaker vision of human nature as we’re freed from the bounds of real-time, face-to-face contact? Is the viciousness of the discourse what human nature would look like in a vacuum? Things certainly seem rancorous, not to mention regressive and infantile, in the gang wars of the right and left lobes of the political blogosphere, which (especially if you read the “comments”) often seem more about humiliating and degrading those who take an opposing position than about persuading anyone of the rationality of one’s arguments.

Does interaction at a distance disinhibit the urge to degrade? Is there some dynamic at work wherein the Scamosphere calls forth the scam-baiters to do good deeds, in response to bad deeds by scammers, but then the very doing of the deeds somehow draws forth a kind of deplorably vicious joy in inflicting psychic injury?

The competitive, exhibitionist escalation—the drive to come up with the most “creative” scam-bait—has become a drive to humiliate. Does this entail an irony—that as our civilization develops greater and greater technical sophistication in its ability to communicate, we find ourselves devolving into a cruder, Hobbesian state? When we contemplate the war between scammers and scam-baiters, must we say, “A pox on both their Webs”?

There’s no denying the good that scam-baiters sometimes do. Superhero-like, they swoop in and save many innocents from ruin. But some in the scam-baiting community also take pleasure in mean-spirited mockery, like a mob of virtual vigilantes.

I have a modest suggestion that might make their methods (and their Web sites) more palatable: Lose the trophy rooms. They’re unnecessary, and they give what I truly hope is just a wrong impression—that scam-baiting is about the scam-baiter’s ego, about triumphalism over the poor and uneducated.

I like my superheroes humble.

Presented by

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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