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Scamming the Scammers

You’ve probably seen umpteen numbers of e-mails that start something like this:

I am making this contact with you on behalf of my colleagues after a satisfactory information we gathered from an international business directory. My colleagues and I are members of the Contractor Review Committee of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). I have been mandated by my colleagues to look for a trustworthy company/individual into whose account some funds is to be transferred…

I am Mr. Omar El-Dagash, a Manager at the Union Bank Nigeria PLC, Lagos. I came to know of you in my private search for a reliable and reputable person to handle a very confidential transaction which involves the transfer of a huge sum of money to a foreign account requiring maximum confidence…

I am the manager of auditing and accounting department of Bank of Africa (B.O.A) here in ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. In my department we discovered an abandoned sum of US$20.5m Dollars ( TWENTY MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND US DOMMARS) in an account that belongs to one of our foreign customer ( MR. ANDREAS SCHRANNER From Munich, Germany) Who died along with his entire family…

As you read this, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because, I believe everyone will die someday. My name is Saeed Ahmed a merchant in Dubai, in the U.A.E.I have been diagnosed with Esophageal cancer. It has defiled all forms of medical treatment, and right now I have only about a few months to live, according to medical experts. I have not particularly lived my life so well, as I never really cared for anyone(not even myself) but my business. Though I am very rich, I was never generous…

And of course:
I am really sorry to bother you with my problem, this has to come in a hurry. I had traveled to United Kingdom on an International business trip. Unfortunately for me all my luggage (which included my cash, diary and credit cards) were stolen at the hotel where I lodged, I am so confused right now, I don’t know what to do or where to go. I did not bring my phone here and the hotel’s telephone line was disconnected during the robbery incident. Please can you send me £ 500 (pounds sterling) so I can return home…

These are internet scams. There are myriad variations on these types of e-mails:
– Dead dictator or relative, dead foreigner, dying widow, diverted or excess funds, etc. scam
– Lottery/grant scam
– Job offer scam
– Gold/diamonds for sale
– Loan scams
– Charity scams
– Investment scams
– Internet romance scams
– Stranded relative or friend scam
– Pet adoption scams (yes, pet adoption scams)

These types of scams are generally known as advance-fee, or “419” scams (419 because a majority of them originate in Nigeria, and 419 is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code prohibiting such illegal activity). Please note the use of the word “majority” – not all scammers come from Nigeria or West Africa. There are scammers from all continents, including North America. This is a world-wide phenomenon, and operations range from one scammer in his living room to very large and organized groups. In all cases, the goal of the scammer is to extract money from you. It’s called “advance fee” fraud because the scammers promise you something (riches! a job! love! puppies!), but first require you to provide sums of money upfront for “processing fees,” lawyers, paperwork, shipping, visas, etc. In almost every case they will require that you wire them money via Western Union to get the ball rolling before you will receive your money/job/puppy.

A seasoned skeptic would never fall for such scams and may even wonder how anyone possibly could. But people do. Not everyone has the critical thinking skills to weed out such fraud, and sadly even at a very minimal success rate scammers can make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of their victims. You may think that the victims are naive or unintelligent, but successful business people have been taken in by scams like this. As have university students, and folks with big hearts just looking to help that poor boy in a refugee camp, or that girl trapped as a sex slave. Some people have lost their life savings to scams such as these. It may be your instinct to be unsympathetic – caveat emptor, after all – but no one who is scammed deserves to be scammed. Enter the scam baiters.

Scam baiters could be considered “internet vigilantes.” The goal of scam baiters is to keep the scammers ‘on the ropes’ for as long as possible. The thinking is that as long as the scammers are wasting their time, energy, and resources on the baiters, that’s time, energy, and resources not spent scamming unsuspecting victims. More ambitious scam baiters also gather information on the scammers, which they will provide to online forums and search engine spiders to protect future victims, or to the authorities in the hopes of bringing the scammer to real justice. Some scam baiters will make their scammers go through a series of ornate and humiliating tasks – including taking photos of themselves dressed strangely, holding weird objects, or holding funny signs in English; filling out nonsense forms and paperwork that the scammer has invented; and even travelling to potentially dangerous places. Some scam baiters have even succeeded in getting the scammers to send them money!

Scam baiters pose as potential victims, often responding to an e-mail they received (or any e-mail, really – the scammers don’t care as long as you’re a potential cash cow; they do not keep track of which e-mails were sent to which addresses). The scam baiter pretends to be keen on the scammer’s offer, and then the fun begins.

In general scam baiters may be in this for altruistic reasons, but make no mistake ó they are having fun. They will do or say pretty much anything to amuse themselves, keep the scammer on the line, and make the scammer look a fool. Scam baiters often use joke names and places that are obvious and funny to native English-speakers, but fly under the radar of non-native speakers. Baiters may construct a whole ornate plot, with multiple characters, in order to keep the transaction going for as long as possible. Perhaps the baiter has a sister who begins communicating with the scammer and falls in love with him. Perhaps the baiter has an overbearing parent/spouse/boss/business partner who views the transaction as dubious and therefore requires more and more “proof” that it’s legit and that the scammer is who he says he is. This can be a high form of satire. Ever obsequious, the scammer will comply with all requests if he thinks it will get him his money in the end.

If you have an especially sensitive sense of morality, you may question the ethics of this sport, but that is a best left for a philosophical debate in a pub some night. If it is of interest to you to learn more, and be quite amused in the process, there are many websites and books that detail different scam-baiting stories – many complete with photos. A partial list of websites (and sources for this article) is below.

The author, and The Association for Science and Reason do not endorse or promote scam baiting.


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