The People Who Get Revenge On Spammers

By Mike Devlin on Wednesday, September 11, 2013
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“Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.” —Charlotte, Charlotte’s Web

In A Nutshell

The “Nigerian prince” Internet scam costs unwitting victims millions of dollars each year. Bringing these shadowy figures to justice on distant shores has proven nigh impossible, but there are people dedicated to getting revenge on the scammers, luring them into schemes that range from the ridiculous to the potentially lethal.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all gotten them: strangely worded e-mails promising untold riches if only you invest a little seed money. There are dozens of variations on the theme, but the premise is pretty much the same: Someone knows of a vast fortune (such as the wealth of an overthrown king), but they need money to access it. For your contribution, you’ll be rewarded handsomely, typically with 10–40 percent of their take. Most of us discard these e-mails without a second thought, but these scams rely upon volume. Dozens of young men will crowd cyber cafes in Nigeria, constantly shooting out messages and waiting for replies. If they send 10,000 e-mails, surely someone will be gullible enough to follow through. These victims are called “maghas,” a Yoruba slang word for “fool.” (23)

It is impossible to get a bead on the true extent of the damages caused by the scam, but estimates by the US Secret Service claims “hundreds of millions of dollars” is lost every year. Interestingly, there are some people that enjoy messing with scammers. These folks, called “scambaiters” employ various techniques. Most of the time, this merely involves endless e-mails chains and false promises that get the scammers to waste their time and resources, keeping them away from victims they might otherwise successfully fleece. Others will send along nasty computer viruses. But there is another breed altogether, whose plots are as hilarious, sinister, and bizarre as anything dreamed up by Hollywood.

One scambaiter managed to get a scammer to handwrite the full text of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by claiming to be a researcher studying “Advanced Handwriting Recognition and Graphology” and offering $100 per page of writing samples. Another man managed to trick a scammer into joining the fake “Church of the Painted Breast” (sending photographic evidence of his holy commitment) and send him $80 in cash. Perhaps the most awesome trick happened in 2008, when members of the scambait group “419eater” convinced a scammer to leave Nigeria and travel to war-torn Abeche, Chad to pick up his (nonexistent) money from a Western Union.

Show Me The Proof

Turning the tables on Nigeria’s e-mail conmen
Harry Potter & The Well of Scammers
U.S. Internet fraud at all-time high: ‘Nigerian’ scam and other crimes cost $198.4 million
Nigerian Cyber Scammers