Paris: Ever been tempted to respond to that email message offering untold millions from the relatives of a deposed African dictator?
For some, replying is a rewarding hobby.
Interpol says these email messages—which offer a large reward in exchange for a small advance payment—cajole, threaten and ultimately defraud an increasing number of greedy, naïve and frightened Internet surfers of billions of dollars each year.
“These email-based scams are growing as quickly as the Internet itself,” said Ralf Zimmermann, a crime intelligence officer in the financial and high-tech crimes division of Interpol, who is based in Lyon, France. “Every new user of the Internet is a potential victim.”
Interpol has recently observed West African scammers moving to base their activities in Europe, and a relatively new breed of scam—love fraud—is coming out of the Baltic countries.
Love fraud victims are conned into sending money for airline flights to a non-existent lover encountered online. In response, the national authorities have beefed up enforcement. The Netherlands, for example, created an 30-member police task force early this year.
Now, ordinary citizens have started taking justice into their own hands. Calling themselves scambaiters, these individuals from around the world trade tips, tales and “trophies” on thriving discussion boards at 419eater.com, scamorama.com and aa419.org.
Scam baiters turn the tables and scam the scammer. They antagonize, humiliate and frustrate scammers who think they have an unwary victim.
“My reason for scamb-aiting is to waste the time and resources of the scammer,” said Scam Patroller, who declined to provide any identification beyond an email address.
“Each minute a scammer spends on my bait cannot be used to scam a real victim.”
Their motives may be altruistic, but not all law enforcement officials approve of their tactics, which can include entrapment and the public humiliation of having embarrassing photographs posted on the Internet.
“At first you might smile and think the trophy photographs are funny, but I have seen some with fraudsters in highly degrading positions,” said Zimmermann of Interpol.
“They are fraudsters and they are not good people, but they have their human rights.”
For all the effort and time spent by scam baiters, not everyone is convinced they make a difference.
“Given the scale of the problem, it is like the scam baiters are cleaning a stadium with a toothbrush,” said Suresh Ramasubramanian, who manages anti-spam operations at Outblaze, one of the world’s largest email hosting companies. “This may be an entertaining hobby, but it is not saving the world.”
But, to Jason dinAlt, a scambaiter interviewed in an online chat, the scammers are criminals who deserve any ridicule they receive.
The humiliations delivered by scam baiters can be as elaborate as the scams themselves, and they range from photographs with silly signs to complex and expensive trips to pick up non-existent payoffs.
“My most prized trophies are not physical ones, they are events,” dinAlt said.
“My lad travelled 300km four times to pick up money that didn’t exist and he was physically thrown out of the moneygram office and told to never come back.”
Prized scam-baiter trophies include photographs of the scammers and their accomplices holding signs intended to humiliate them, saying things like “I am a bad person” or other statements unsuitable for print.
The site 419eater.com uses photographs of scammers holding signs as navigation tools for the website.
Other images involve embarrassing additions to the photograph, like a scammer holding a fish on his head or hugging a goat, an animal considered filthy in the Muslim countries where much scamming originates.
One scambait video that turned into a YouTube hit shows scammers in a Lagos grocery store acting out the Dead Parrot sketch from the television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Over the course of a lengthy correspondence, the scammers had been persuaded that the video would be entered into a contest offering a cash prize.
The creator of that scambait, who identifies himself as Michael Berry, published a book of his favourite scam baits, titled Greetings in Jesus Name! The Scambaiter Letters.
In another bait, Berry persuaded a scammer to carve a full-scale wooden replica of a Commodore 64 computer keyboard.
Like all scam baiters interviewed for this article, Berry, the founder of 419eater.com, declined to speak on the phone or provide a verifiable identity.
“I won’t give out my home number to anyone for obvious reasons of anonymity and safety,” Scam Patroller said in an email exchange, adding that his companion did not fully approve of his hobby.
“She often worries about me baiting criminals.”
Cloaking themselves in digital anonymity through proxy servers and fake email addresses, scam baiters invent multiple personalities and sprinkle email addresses in Website comments as bait.
“I usually limit myself to 10 different personalities at a time,” said dinAlt.
“Beyond that it gets too confusing to keep up with each story line.”
Responding to email solicitations from scammers, the scam baiters start an exchange with the aim of moving up the hierarchy of the scam operation.
The lower-level responders often follow a standard script until a likely victim is identified. At that point, the victim is passed to a higher-level scammer to extract money.
“You tailor your bait to get the scammer off the script,” said dinAlt. “Once you get them off the script, it is all downhill for the scammer from there.”
Once scammers are hooked, dinAlt usually exposes some part of the scam as untrustworthy or dishonest, forcing the scammers to prove themselves trustworthy. “We tell them that in Western countries, sending a photograph with a sign is a symbol of trustworthiness, because a camera does not lie,” dinAlt said.
“Some are so greedy they will do anything to restore the confidence of their intended victim, including pose with a fish on their head or have milk poured over them while holding a sign with a silly message.”
Over the course of a lengthy correspondence, a bond can develop between scammer and scam baiter.
“I know him pretty well,” dinAlt said of a scammer with whom he has exchanged roughly 400 emails over 18 months. “I know he was married, but separated because of his womanizing and fell out with his lifelong friend over cheating in a scam.”
Despite respect for the scammer’s intelligence and sympathy for his financial plight, dinAlt holds him in low regard. “He is an educated man in a country where there is no hope, and he could have been successful in different circumstances,” dinAlt said. ”But he is a thief—albeit from circumstances beyond his control—but he is still a thief, and that is something I won’t accept.”