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

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Commodore64.jpg

After digging deep into the archives with Mark Twain, Apollo-era NASA scientists, and the promoter of the helicopter, we're coming back to the recent past, the June 2007 issue. In it we find Ron Rosenbaum's fascinating feature about a group of anti-scammers who prank, humiliate and defeat the people who e-mail you with tales of Senegalese princes, or barristers in London, or whatever.

They hang out together on a site called 419eater, where they swap tips and show off "trophies" of their exploits. And of those trophies, the carved and polished wood replica of the Commodore 64 has got to be the all-time best. Rosenbaum dives deep in the ethics of anti-scamming -- and you should certainly read it -- but let's just revel in this "ingenious act of cybervengeance" for a moment:

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.

Read the rest of Rosenbaum's "How to Trick an Online Scammer Into Carving a Computer Out of Wood: Ingenious Acts of Cyber-vengeance."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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