419 baiting – keeping online scammers running in circles
How many of you have received an email telling you that you’ve one a lottery that you never even entered? Or, that a rich widow wants help distributing millions of dollars to the poor? Or, that YOU, and only you, can help free a fortune from a corrupt nation? Well, after years of deleting these cruddy emails I’ve discovered that there is a way to use them against the scammers.
419 scams were given their name because they violated a formerly relevant section of the criminal code of Nigeria. To any moderately intelligent or aware person, these scams fall on deaf ears. But, people do actually fall for them every day. To date, the 419 scammers have made hundreds of millions of dollars from poor, unsuspecting (and let’s be honest, slightly greedy) folk who have blindly given away money, bank details, passport scans, social security numbers and more. Ouch.
Anyway, when I received an email from a Mrs. Stella Cole this weekend, asking me to help distribute her dead husband’s fortune to the poor and needy, I spotted the scam in a nanosecond.
The spelling was awful, the scenario was ridiculous, the details were sketchy, and the whole thing reeked of a traditional 419 scam. However, I decided not to delete it but instead pass the information on to a professional scam baiter. I found one through the Internet and this person, who shall remain nameless, devotes his time and energy to scam baiting. And it’s a worthwhile cause indeed.
419 baiting – hooking a scammer.
First, a warning. Scam baiting means dealing with real crooks. Some 419 scam baiters have received death threats (and curses…oooohhhh, scary). Of course, 99% of 419 scammers are operating out of Internet café’s in the middle of Nigeria, most of the time, and would never follow up on any of these threats because it would take too much time and effort; time which is always better spent trying to con other victims.
However, there are real risks associated with this “sport” which is highlighted below:
Though humorous, and arguably productive in diverting and discouraging scammers, there is a small, though real, risk of harm to the scambaiter. The entire idea of a scam bait is to frustrate the scammer and waste his time and money; if and when the scammer becomes aware his supposed victim is in fact a baiter, death threats are not uncommon (they are in fact a trophy among baiters, as they provide proof of how angry the scammer is). There is little doubt among scambaiting groups that if a baiter's real identity and personal information were made known to the scammers, those death threats could be carried out. Many scammers work in highly organized gangs, operating similar to a telemarketing firm where lower-level scammers send the first mass e-mails and higher-level scam artists receive the positive responses and work the scams from there. These gangs often have contacts in many countries across Europe and the Americas (many of which are in fact actual victims conned into doing the bidding of the scammer), and are thought to have connections to organized crime. Such highly organized gangs would have the resources to organize a kidnapping, assault or even murder of a baiter that had successfully wasted months or years of time and hundreds of dollars in plane tickets, hotel fares, etc. as part of a bait.
For this reason, and also because some of the tactics used by a baiter are similar to those used by scammers and therefore legally questionable (such as providing false information and IDs), sites like 419 Eater constantly remind visitors that scammers are criminals, and to "bait safe". The personal information of a bait character, such as the name, address and bank account info, is totally fictional or fictionalized. Web-based e-mail services and proxy servers hide the sender's actual IP address, since the mail is sent from the website, and such accounts are set up with the bait character's fake information. Phone calls are usually handled using operator-assisted relay services for the deaf, web-based answering services that send faxes and voice mail messages to an e-mail address, and VoIP-based "telephony" services. Images, such as pictures of the baiter's character or scans of IDs or documents, are "PhotoShopped" and/or otherwise obfuscated to ensure that innocent third parties are not affected by use of their picture and that the scammer cannot use them. It is also a valuable time-wasting tactic to provide the scammer with an "image" that is unviewable.
Scambaiters are also highly connected, and sometimes call upon each other to help with a bait. The other baiters could be called on to make phone calls, provide phony documents, play other characters in the bait, take over a bait or focus the scammer's attention elsewhere, or maneuver other baited scammers to complement the bait's plot. In addition to increasing the scammer's confidence that they are dealing with real people, such activities increase the anonymity of everyone involved because no one person is behind the character.
So as you can see, although it carries a hint of danger, the reason people get involved is simple; the longer you keep them busy, the less time they have to work on other, more susceptible people. To use a movie reference, scam baiters are throwing meat at a bunch of wild dogs to help the innocent family escape from the house, or something like that.
419 baiters often string along scammers for months, getting them to do some of the most unusual stuff. One of my favorites comes from this site (there’s some NSFW language on it, be warned). He has some of these people sending him photographs with some lurid (but clearly non-translatable) signs. One has the scammer holding up some Madonna lyrics! Priceless.
The baiting goes on for weeks, sometimes months, taking the scammers' time away from other victims. While I certainly don’t like the language he employs, ebolamonkeyman keeps scammers busy for a long, long time. And that has to be good.
Am I encouraging you to become a scam baiter? Big fat NO on that one, it could carry serious consequences. But next time you get one of these nasty emails, you may want to think about forwarding it to someone who has the time, resources and bravery to do something about it. In fact, just by forwarding your scam email to someone who keeps these on public record, you are increasing awareness of yet another strain of the ever-growing 419 epidemic.
Stay safe people, and never, ever respond to any email that seems too good to be true.
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