When your hobby is baiting 419 scammers (also known as Nigerian scammers or advance-fee fraudsters), a death threat isn't cause for concern—it's a trophy worth bragging about to your friends.
Scam baiters are the vigilante enforcers who come together to waste hours, weeks, or months of 419 scammers' lives for nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing that they are distracting them from real victims. Though the world of 419 scams has existed since long before the Internet, people continue to fall for scammers in droves—certainly, scammers are making millions of dollars every year by promising money, goods, and romance that they never deliver on. That's part of why scam baiting has actually become a somewhat popular pastime online, with thousands of users flocking to scam baiting forums to share stories and ideas on how to string along more scammers. And hey, why not? Most of us end up spending too much time screwing around on the Internet anyway—these folks just use that time to make scammers miserable.
But when you hear stories like this, it makes you wonder. "I get death threats on regular basis," a student who goes by -C- told Ars. "Death threats are not uncommon and are actually considered achievements: they are a testament to the fact that the baiter managed to annoy his/her scammer nicely."
Why would you want to start baiting scammers?
When the scammer sends you a fake passport that looks like it was made by a blind hamster with a piece of charcoal in ten seconds, you praise it and say it really helps you to build trust.
Who are these people? As it turns out, the scam-baiter demographic is more diverse than one might think, though much of the reasoning for participating is the same. "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," a 32-year-old baiter who goes by blah told Ars. "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."
Other scam baiters we spoke to (all of which wished to remain anonymous for their own safety) echoed this sentiment, many relaying feelings of boredom or frustration with scammers. They also had heard humorous stories from experienced baiters and wanted to get involved. And, of course, there's always those who simply do it because they feel like it's payback. "I'm an absolute stickler for justice and hate any form of abuse," a UK production company owner who goes by Paddy told Ars.
The things baiters do to scammers range from "boring," menial tasks like seeding false information or questionable wording into the scamming community (tasks that don't necessarily bring the glory, but are equally necessary) to sending scammers on full-on safaris across Africa—or sometimes, the globe—in search of money that will never come. The baiters we spoke with said that they spend anywhere from a an hour per day (usually arranged around other things, like TV or just casual Internet surfing) to a full 8 to 10 hours per day, especially if they are working on a collaborative safari. We'll get to that in a minute.
Some of the more menial tasks involve posing as experienced scammers trying to befriend newbies in order to give them sage advice. "For example, scammers like idioms, but many of their native idioms are different to those of English language and they may not know that many from the latter. Teach them a new one: tell them that 'take this offer of mine with a huge grain of salt' means 'this is the chance of your life time and I am very serious about this,'" -C- says.
-C- describes another way of "de-educating" scammers: giving feedback on their fake documents in order to make them look less realistic. -C- explains: "When the scammer sends you a fake passport that looks like it was made by a blind hamster with a piece of charcoal in ten seconds, you praise it and say it really helps you to build trust. Then, hope he is encouraged by this to send it to real victims too, who on the other hand will hopefully recognize it's a fake."
We're going on a surfin' safari
Every minute the scammer I'm communicating with is spending on me is a minute he is not scamming a real potential victim.
On the more extreme end of the scale, the tales from baiters are both horrifying and hilarious, depending on where your sympathies lie (and how much you enjoy tales of lengthy snipe hunts). 28-year-old manny relayed a story wherein he and several other baiters talked a scammer into traveling from Port Harcourt, Nigeria to Darfur to pick up a nonexistent $500,000. The 3,000-mile roundtrip got the scammer stranded for two weeks before he managed to make it home. Craig, a professional airline pilot, said that he and three other baiters got a scammer to travel from Lagos, Nigeria to Paga, Ghana—a total of 3,800 miles.
blah had fun with a scammer and airport security in London, resulting in his being detained for several hours. "He was waiting for me to arrive on a flight that I wasn't actually on. I told him to show up with a black backpack and hold it very very close to his chest (that's how I would know that it was him). Airport security didn't find it amusing, apparently, and thought he was acting suspicious," blah said. "My plane fictitiously arrived after he had been detained and I ended up chewing the scammer out for being so inconsiderate as to get detained and leave me waiting for an hour until I finally just hailed a cab and went to my hotel. When airport security finally released him, he went and waited in the lobby-bar of the hotel for four additional hours while I 'freshened-up' in my room."
Do ethics apply to this game?
There are many other stories easily found online—ones that none of our baiters were willing to fess up to—about having scammers get tattoos saying ridiculous things, or sending them into truly dangerous regions of Africa that have almost gotten them killed. The general consensus among the baiters we spoke to, however, was that they feel even the most dangerous of safaris is payback for all the scammers do. "The scammer makes the decision to put themselves in harm's way; if something happens to them, so be it. Most of them would have no problem with you dying if it meant that they would make a dollar," said manny. "One baiter's character recently told the scammer that he had a choice between sending the scammer $5,000 or using the same money to pay for his baby daughter's cancer treatment—I think you can guess which option the scammer chose."
Craig agreed. "Making a lad sweat it out in Niger, 100° heats, with the need to drink two gallons of water a day or die, is petty punishment for their crimes," he said. "A lad returning from a long journey, financially worse off, demoralized completely, may lose interest in scamming."
That's really the end goal—to keep the scammers' attention directed away from real victims and hopefully frustrate them to the point of quitting. "Every minute the scammer I'm communicating with is spending on me is a minute he is not scamming a real potential victim," manny told Ars.
Others agreed wholeheartedly. "Whether he is wandering through the desert hundreds of miles from home, or making yet another fruitless trip to the Moneygram office, that's all time he is not behind a computer scamming someone's elderly parents." Many of the baiters also spend time working with other sites to warn victims and help educate people about 419 scams (Paddy told me he spends a lot of time warning victims at scamwarners.com, for example). "I love to hear is someone ripping up a fake check they just received from the scammer and/or telling me that we just saved them their life's savings."