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.”

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.

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.