In times like these, African scammers pounce on the poor and gullible with hilariously mistranslated emails. I was going to write a fake, hyperbolic email to be funny, but the actual emails are even funnier and more preposterous than anything I could invent. A classic example:
Subject: cry for help
Like anyone, at first I innocently thought, "oh, a new email from my old from "ooo ooo!" Wonder what ooo ooo's been up to lately? How are the little ooo ooos? Then I opened the email, and to my surprise, ooo ooo was pretty upset with me, because he was caps-lock yelling through the entire exchange.PERMIT ME TO INFORM YOU OF MY DESIRE OF GOING INTO BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU. I GOT YOUR NAME AND CONTACT FROM THE TOGOLESE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY. I PRAYED OVER IT AND SELECTED YOUR NAME AMONG OTHER NAMES DUE TO IT'S ESTEEMING NATURE AND THE RECOMMENDATIONS GIVEN TO ME AS A REPUTABLE AND TRUST WORTHY PERSON I CAN DO BUSINESS WITH AND BY THEIR RECOMMENDATIONS I MUST NOT HESITATE TO CONFIDE IN YOU FOR THIS SIMPLE AND SINCERE BUSINESS.
Soon, I learned that this wasn't my old friend, but I kept reading because the writer recognized my "esteeming nature," which means he's obviously a good judge of character. He went on to explain about a sealed envelope containing million of dollars in a Swiss bank, and how only I -- armed with my esteeming nature -- could help him transfer the money -- which of course is rightfully his -- to the United States. And for my help, I would be generously rewarded:
LET ME ASURE YOU THAT THIS TRANSACTION IS 100% HITCH AND FRISK FREE.BASED ON YOUR ACCEPT ING TO HELP ME I WILL BE GIVING YOU A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF PERCENTGEFOR YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THIS AND THIS WILL BE DISCUS UPON YOUR RESPONCE TO MY MAIL .100% Hitch and Frisk free? Where do I sign? Who could pass up this opportunity? We must responce to his mail immediately! After all, he's only asking for an advance of an entirely reasonable sum of $10,000 to pay bank fees and unfreeze the millions of dollars in the account. Oh, and:
YOU WILL MAKE ARRANGEMENT FOR ME TO COME OVER TO YOUR COUNTRY TO FURTHER MY EDUCATION AND TO SECURE A RESIDENTIAL PERMIT FOR ME IN YOUR COUNTRY. I HAVE DOCUMENTS AS REGARS TO THIS CLAIM.That seems reasonable. What could possibly go wrong for a Togolese millionaire and a person of my esteeming nature? I'm on the phone with Delta already!
While it seems impossible that anyone could actually trust the veracity of these scams, according to one source, a whopping, astonishing 50,000 people fall victim to this type of fraud every year. This includes the loss of an estimated $5 billion (yes, billion) dollars over the last 20 years, not to mention attendant kidnappings and even murders. (Don't believe me? Snopes.com provides numbers of its own.)
Enter the "scambaiters." Michael "Shiver Metimbers" Berry runs a website called "The 419 Eater," named after the Nigerian Criminal Code section that addresses this type of fraud. (Though my particular email came from Togo, Nigeria is by far the epicenter of this type of crime.) Berry pioneered a counter-scam of his own called "scambaiting," which is basically answering these emails with the intent of "wasting [the scammer's] time and resources." By engaging in drawn-out, unproductive dialogues with scammers, he claims he keeps "scammers away from real potential victims," and, let's face it, embarrasses them for his own amusement.
His scam-baiting began innocently enough. Berry and friends corresponded with scammers and requested very specific, very ridiculous actions before the transaction continued. They demanded reenactments of Monty Python sketches, and photographs of the scammers holding humiliating signs in humiliating poses. The "Trophy Room" page on their website includes such gems as:
All this seems in good fun. But then I heard a This American Life story that portrayed the 419 Eaters in a different light. (Listen to the whole episode for free here.) TAL profiled a particular bait that took 100 days and required a scammer to travel to Chad, a landlocked African country that borders Darfur and is an extremely violent, dangerous, unstable region. With repeated promises of a money-drop, the scambaiters encouraged the scammer to stay there for months. When the scambaiters became "bored" with this particular scam, they told the scammer that his mother died? Sure, the scammers are bad people, liars, life-ruiners. But TAL's investigation portrayed the actions of the scambaiters as excessive, calloused, and cruel.
The way TAL constructed the story, it was disconcerting how much the scambaiters reveled in the increasingly desperate emails of the scammer, and how they dismissed any feelings of guilt or concern for his safety. When asked how the scambaiters would feel if the scammer were killed in Chad, one responded "it wouldn't really bother me, these guys are pure scum...if they got killed, there's two less scammers in the world."
So what do you think? Does sending a scammer to war-torn Chad seem excessive because it doesn't comport with our notions of justice? After all, U.S. law punishes fraud with fines and jail time, not exile or capital punishment. Or do you support these vigilante scambaiters who are doing what the U.S. government can't: teaching Nigerian fraudsters a lesson? The scambaiters argue that the scammer only ended up in Chad because he was greedy; but isn't greed exactly why victims of the scams end up being victims in the first place?
Regardless of the propriety of the Chad excursion, one thing remains unarguable: the Nigerian scammers are ripe for picking-on. In addition to The 419 Eater's Trophy Room, other sources have made successful mockery of scammers. My two favorites:
Gabriel Delahaye (whom you might remember from "Gabe and Max's Internet Thing" on the blog back in March) posted a particularly amusing exchange on his blog. Read it here.
And, in a more unusual take, Salon.com deconstructed some Nigerian emails and put them through a full literary analysis. Worth reading here.