SLIDESHOW: Images from Scambaiting Web sites
A man has sliced his palm open, for reasons that are unclear. Another reclines, naked and still, as his body is spattered with milk and egg yolks. One holds a sign declaring, I WAIT FOR YOU ON MY KNEES AT THE GLORY HOLE. Another’s placard proclaims him a GAY LAD. One has attached dozens of clothespins to his face and torso. One lays supine as a crude tattoo, huge and hideous, is cut into his back: “Pwn3d by Slaw.” One holds a piece of poster board scrawled with a question: ARE WE NOT HAVING FUN YET?
There are hundreds of faces in the “Trophy Room” of 419Eater.com, and most of them are black. They gaze into the camera with wry smiles, sometimes, but more often with affectless expressions, eyes staring wanly into middle distance.
The persons depicted in the photos are e-mail scammers, those Nigerian hucksters whose broken-English entreaties — promising millions in riches if only some dim dupe across the Atlantic will wire a few thousand in processing fees up front — flood your inbox each morning.
They’ve been procured by scambaiters, a cadre of swashbuckling online vigilantes who tangle with scammers by the hundreds, replying to their e-mails and, by promising them quick cash, turning the tables on the scammers themselves, goading the greedy into all kinds of absurd — and demeaning — behavior.
The practice seems a devilish bit of creative comeuppance. Those 419 e-mails (named after the Nigerian penal code for fraud), also called advance-fee frauds, managed to bilk Americans to the tune of $720 million in 2005. Worldwide, it’s estimated, they cost the gullible $3.2 billion each year.
What more noble pursuit than to beat these crooks at their own game? To humiliate them? To waste their time and their money, thereby diverting their attention, even temporarily, from their unsuspecting marks? (Many baiters forward all their correspondence with scammers to the authorities, in the hope of producing arrests.) If one can have a little fun in the process, even better.
After all, scammers, it seems, will do almost anything for money. By promising them that they’ll cash in if they perform an elaborate song-and-dance routine, or sit for a series of professional photographs with dead fish on their heads, or book a pricey hotel suite for a cash-handoff rendezvous that never occurs, one can forestall them, for however long, from plying their felonious trade.
But poking around various scambaiting Web sites, somewhat more sadistic dimensions to the practice come into view. While most scambaiters keep their pranks on the up and up, many others seem to revel in making their marks as miserable as possible.
Those photographs of abject humiliation are hard to swallow, even if one knows the mortification is self-imposed. The fact that their subjects are primarily poor and black only adds to their disquieting power.
On the message board at UK-based scambait site 419Eater.com, more than 20,000 registered users gleefully compare notes in hundreds of threads about their ever-more creative baiting techniques, uploading photos and videos, as well as audio files of their phone conversations with scammers.
Some of the baits are funny. One scammer eagerly transcribed — longhand — an entire Harry Potter book, his pen spurred on by thirsty visions of a big payday. One was cajoled into carving a Commodore 64 replica from a block of wood.
In one classic prank, a baiter purported to be CEO of a video-production company, claiming that his firm was giving out scholarship payments to aspiring actors worldwide. All one had to do was submit footage of oneself acting out scenes from popular movies and TV shows.
Log on to YouTube and you can watch two scammers — or actors hired by the scammers — re-enacting Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. (“He’s a steeff!” the Nigerian thespian complains. “Bereft of life, ’e rests in peace! If you ’adn’t nailed ’eem to the perch, ’e’d be pushing up the daisies!”)
It was a smashing success, about as good as a scambait can get. As the baiter wrote proudly: “The scammer, greedy for money, fell for the story hook, line, and sinker.”
But not all scambait videos are so amusing. For instance, one baiter responded to a 419 e-mail, professing to represent a Hollywood stunt agency. Would the scammer like to audition?
So it is that one can visit YouTube and watch clips of a man taking brutal punches to the skull, jumping off roofs, falling off ladders, leaping through flaming hoops, and setting his pant legs afire as he runs howling in pain.
“I’ll be curious to see the reaction here if someone dies,” writes a poster on 419Eater.com. “[I]s it ethical to . . . get him to beat himself up . . . when he is clearly such a complete idiot?”
The disclaimer at 419Eater.com is oft-repeated:
It should be noted that scambaiters do NOT go actively seeking scammers of a certain skin colour. We only engage thieves who send us e-mails trying to steal from us. We do not target any particular type of person or country.
Fine. But it doesn’t change the fact that those “Trophy Room” photos can be unsettling on a very visceral level. What sort of desperation possesses a man to tattoo some guy’s screen name on his back like a slave’s brand? How hard up for cash can a person be?