It has been described as the internet’s first blood sport and is fast becoming one of the web’s favourite pastimes. Fed up with having their inboxes clogged with emails from Nigerian fraudsters promising untold riches, the victims are finally hitting back.
Scam-baiting – replying to the emails and stringing the con artists along with a view to humiliating them as much as possible – is becoming increasingly popular with more than 150 websites chronicling the often hilarious results.
Known as 419 fraud, after the section of the Nigerian penal code that it contravenes, the scam generates millions of pounds each year. According to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the average loss in the UK stands at around £35,000.
Mike, a 41-year-old computer engineer from Manchester, runs the scam-baiting site 419eater.com, which started two months ago. ‘Almost always the scammer will think you are a real victim and try their best to extract money. It started because I used to get a few emails, and although I knew it was a scam I never knew how it worked. I did some research, found out about scam baiting and decided to have a go. It’s now almost a full-time hobby for me.’
Like most baiters, Mike replies in the names of made-up characters. His sites specialise in collecting pictures of the scammers in order to make it more difficult to find new victims. Using the pretext that in order to believe they are real people they need to take a photograph holding up signs with the name of Mike’s character, he has succeeded in getting one fraudster to pose with a piece of paper stating: MI Semem Stains. Other sites feature similar pictures with signs reading ‘Iama Dildo’, ‘Mr Bukakke’ and ‘Ben Dover’.
Taking a leaf out of the 419 gangs’ book, most of the scam baiters keep their true identities secret. There have been at least 25 murders linked to the 419 gangs. Last February a retired Czech doctor who had lost more than £400,000 stormed into the Nigerian Embassy in Prague and shot dead the leading consul.
A scam-baiting site run by ‘Alexander Kerensky’ focuses its efforts on 419 gangs based in Amsterdam. Adopting the persona ‘Lillith Cova’, an attractive but desperately lonely 27-year-old advertising executive from London, Kerensky exchanged emails with a man by the name of James for more than a month. During this time he received authentic-looking documents, including a power of attorney, entitling him to a 20 per cent share of $18 million.
‘The site started because I managed to lure James in front of an Amsterdam webcam and I wanted people to know what these scammers look like. I don’t have anything against Nigerians. These people are, quite simply, outright criminals.’
The oldest anti-scammer site is Scamorama, which aims to educate the public about the latest trends as well as waste as much of the fraudsters’ time as possible. The original emails often claim the author has suffered a personal tragedy, usually the loss of a parent. A typical Scamorama reply claimed the recipient has also lost a parent in shocking circumstances, having witnessed their own father being shot. The email was signed ‘Alfredo Corleone’.
The ultimate aim of many anti-scammers is to turn the tables completely and get the 419 gangs to send them money. One of those who has succeeded is an Australian who baits under the name of J Cosmo Newbury and specialises in creating characters and situations that border on the surreal. After months of correspondence, one of his characters even received a marriage proposal.
‘I have a long history of writing loopy letters, so this was just an extension of that,’ says Newbury. ‘I think I was as surprised as anyone when the Nigerians fell for my stories, but I guess they are as gullible and as greedy as their victims. I know my efforts won’t stop the scammers, but I have had emails from people who were tempted to reply but searched the internet and found my site and they thanked me for “saving” them.’
Newbury has now published some of his favourite exchanges in the form of a book, Dancing with Thieves. It includes letters where he poses as a terrorist by the name of Princess Tikka Masala, a Chinese restaurateur called Hu Flung Dung and a retired mariner by the name of John Silver.