Scam busters turn the tables on those running the Nigerian scam

AcitoBeloved One,

I have the Courage to Crave Indulgence for this most opportune business venture...

Look familiar? A day doesn't go by day that I don't receive an e-mail from people with names like Dr. Fortunate Goodpence or Mrs. Pius Motubo soliciting my aid in recovering millions from banks in Nigeria, if only I just sent a little money to get started. Which means I greet each morning with the same thought: who still falls for this crap?

Modern advance-fee scams, commonly called 419 scams after the number of the Nigerian Criminal Code, have been around for over twenty-five years, but exploded with the growth of the internet. So you'd think we'd all be wise to them, yet the latest statistics available show that worldwide losses to these kind of scams topped $4.3 billion in 2007 - and those were just the ones reported. Because, let's face it, losing money due to greed and a sense of colonial superiority to Africans is super embarrassing.

Certainly the elderly are targets and anyone who uses the Internet so infrequently they still give addresses using "www." Plus people who can't get dates. Oh yeah, and Citibank, which - oops - gave away $27 million. (If there were still any question whether Citibank execs deserve bonuses, I think that pretty much answered it.)

So I guess we should be glad that Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission recently announced it was cracking down with "Project Eagle Claw," beginning with shutting down 800 scam sites and making 18 arrests.

But I have about as much faith in the Nigerian government as I do in Citibank -- in other words, none. Instead, I'm betting on the efforts of the "scam baiters," a group of internet vigilantes seeking to take down Internet scammers simply by wasting their time and resources. How do they do it? For starters, they actually respond to all those ridiculous letters, acting as if they're really interested. "Whilst you are doing this," their website proclaims, "you will be helping to keep the scammers away from real potential victims and screwing around with the minds of deserving thieves."

Like the scammers, scam baiters string along their prey, often taking advantage of their idiosyncratic knowledge of English (419 letters demonstrate a rare talent for understating the obvious: "I have a disease known as CANCER..." / "It is unfortunate that my daughter died in a bomb attack in London, United Kingdom..." / "Do not feel sorry for me, as I believe that everyone will die someday..."). So the scam baiters know they can request that the crooks send photo verification holding up signs with messages of supposed American idioms, like:

I belong in Sing-Sing.
I need a Cialis urgently.
Fleece the Children Charities
I am oiled up and kinky

Or else they'll just make them do stupid things, claiming it's a sign of trust, like juggling pineapples or pouring milk over their heads. Says one baiter in a very entertaining interview: "My initial reason for baiting was to give myself an outlet for the practical jokes that I am 'too old' to play on my dog/little sister/friends/neighbor's cat. But after I joined 419eater, I realized that we actually do make an impact on the entire scamming business by running interference and wasting these scammer's time."

So while new scams constantly crop up to replace old ones, we can rest assured that there are pranksters out there to foil them.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.
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