September 15, 2008

Scum Baiting *

This American Life aired a story this weekend about an internet sport, in which people under assumed names pretend to be victims of email bank fraud scams to lure the scammers into compromising positions and take their time away from scamming real victims. If you want to download this episode for free, do it this week, because after that you will have to pay, or just have the option to stream it.

I want to say right up front that I realize that the scammers are ruthless and frequently dangerous. It is the ethical and moral ambiguity of scam baiting and the psychology of the practice that intrigues me.

In the particular case described on the radio, a team of baiters lured two or three scammers 1400 miles from home in Lagos to a dangerous and unpleasant city in Chad not far from the border with Sudan. I’m still reading the message forum that discussed the bait while it was occurring (I’m about halfway through the 133-page thread), and it is apparent at this point in the story that the original scammer is in pretty dire straits; he has no money (not even for checking his email or placing cell phone calls), his compadre has a debilitating leg injury, and they just want to go home.

The scenario is an opportunity to watch two vastly different worlds collide. Some of the forum contributors are surprised that the scammers continue to “fall” for the bait, and can’t understand why they don’t just quit when the stakes become uncomfortably high. The reason for the surprise, I suspect, is that most of those people on the forum have never been to west Africa, and possibly not even to the third world with people who really live there. Here is a quote from one of the spectators:

I’d just like to give my thanks to YW, Jojo and Prof… not unimaginable bastard pig, or travel agent or, well fat bloke in underpants… but EDUCATORS!

I learned a little of this region of Africa during Kuku’s excellent adventures, but now I feel like I’m gaining an intimate insight into the day to day life of this troubled region.. without ever leaving my chair. Cool

Thank you… we are in your debt. I just wish geography/meteorology/social science/world politics had been this exciting at school Smile

It is especially peculiar to read comments by spectators, who imply that in jail or the hospital the scammers would have access to food or showers. There is one exception on the forums, who appears to be from Nigeria, originally.

I visited a Cameroonian friend in Ivory Coast in the autumn of 2001, between the military coups. The country was under martial law, and because of that, pretty stable. I had a wonderful time. Really. Because I was with people who really live there, and they were good friends. It was like another planet, however, and after having been there I now understand some of the things that had previously perplexed me about the way some of my foreign colleagues have handled things in the US. Here are some observations:

  1. You cannot plan things in the third world, but must remain very flexible. Office hours are inconsistent, forms and procedures are arbitrary and change without warning, and it is more about who you know than what you know, in order to actually get things done. Everything is negotiable.
  2. Free enterprise thrives. There were many people who had set up shop as telephone service providers, by sitting on the side of the road and charging a fee for others to use their cell phone. There were sometimes lines of people waiting to place calls. There were small “gas stations” where people had jugs and bottles of fuel to resell to moped drivers. One even had a Texaco star earnestly painted on the side of his table.
  3. Resources are extremely limited. I know this sounds obvious, but I really mean it. Enabling technologies that facilitate communication are extremely expensive (in local terms) to use, and are often not functional. I spent several frustrated sessions in an internet cafe in Bouaké and I can say first-hand that using those computers is not easy (starting with the French keyboard layout). And in the scheme of things, it was a really nice internet cafe.
  4. There is very little community infrastructure. You can’t rely on services that we take for granted, like trash removal, phone service, electricity, water, street repair, etc. Some are there for some neighborhoods, some are not, and all are intermittent. The only time I encountered police was in Abidjan when we were riding from the airport to the house of my friend’s cousin. The driver and I were up in front, and the other four were in back. A cop stopped us on the highway because he was concerned that I might have been kidnapped. After I convinced him that I was OK in my broken French, we drove on and soon pulled over so I could move to the back seat and my presence in the car wouldn’t be so obvious (the driver was understandably nervous about attracting any more attention).
  5. It was a great shock to see the amount of waste in the US, upon my return. Even something as simple as a lawn seems naked without clothes lying out on it to dry. Any cleared space on the ground was used for drying food. Everything was re-used so many times that containers and bags were sometimes unrecognizeable.

Based on my personal experience, here are some thoughts about scam baiting:

  1. In the scenario described on the radio, I think the scammers at first thought they had a “rich” dumb mark. However, by the time they had been lured to Abeche, I think they knew that there was not a real evangelical church behind the emails. However, they knew they had real live Americans on the other end of the line, and therefore they might still get some money out of them if they played along for sympathy. In a few emails the scammer pleads with the baiter(s), saying “this is not a game.”
  2. The reason scammers might not suspect early that they’re being baited is because in their world, (the third world), it is inconcievable that anyone would use time and money to sit around on the internet and mess with people just for fun, with no expectation of profit. That kind of leisure is available to the western middle class, and taken for granted by us who live in this world.
  3. In the places I saw on the forum where ethics was discussed, I did not find any mention of the ethics of baiters sending small amounts of money to scammers to keep them interested or communicating. I saw mention about baiters trying to get money from scammers (which is discouraged), and discussions about how far a bait should go, especially in terms of danger for the scammer, but not whether baiters could or do send money to scammers. The reason I bring this up, is that for me, I do not see a problem with baiting as long as only words are used on the scammer. It would be a very ugly scenario if westerners used their wealth to pay scammers to go into danger or humiliation. Then it becomes a puppet show for the benefit of the privileged, with real people dangling on the end of those strings.

One spectator in fact did bring up this idea, and it was discussed:

has anyone considered maybe sending them some small ammount of money so we can get them back online and talking to us?

I mean this bait is definatly worth a think, although it is against the rules and such, I think this safari is WAY TO good, and i think its way to early to stop….

by sending them 20$ they cud get back on the PC, and we cud bring even more tears to their faces…

Just a thought, probably not a good one, but I think this is one bait that would be worth roping on a bit

And shot down by one of the baiters:

Never in a bazillion years would we ever consider sending these lads even a penny. It really sucks that we can’t hear from them or get any messages across without the phone, but whatever. Look at the reasons why? We had said from the very beginning that we fully expected them to fall off the map at some point. We knew where we were sending them, and this is exactly what we were hoping for (minus the jail cells). We were continually amazed at how resourceful they managed to be. These cockroaches have survived a lot, and for about 9 weeks of it they managed to stay in touch. Well done, scumbags.

We’re doing our best to find ways to kick this bait back into action. None of us want this to be over either. We had a productive chat yesterday about some strategy to get ND off of his ass, so we’ll see how that pans out. But yeah, sadly it looks like the boys are now just another couple refugees in Abeche that will be spending days dodging rebel gunfire rather than running 419 scams in a cafe.

Still, it concerns me that sending small amounts of money might be a temptation for baiters in general. And it’s a very ugly scenario if they do.

The ethics of baiting can be complex. Later in the same forum, the baiters had identified a couple of new scammers and lured them to Chad as well. These two seemed genuinely interested in becoming evangelical missionaries, as an alternative to scamming:

I have no doubt in my mind that these guys are 100% serious about [the church]. There is no scamming involved here, from what I can see. These guys are different than Adamu. Adamu still had it in his mind that he was scamming the church. These guys, however, honestly want to be part of the church. That’s probably cruel of us. Ooops.

This was discussed on the forum:

Ah, an interesting ethical conundrum… It appears the lads are not looking to “scam” the church, as they are perfectly content with the huge payout that they perceive will come with simply posing as deeply religious individuals, is that right?…. I guess the question then becomes: Yeah, but if they were not presented with this opportunity would they still be doing 419s? I think I know the answer, in which case they deserve evrything that’s coming.

The baiters confirmed that scamming was the curent M.O. of these guys by using a different identity:

I know the answer to this. I was chatting with him online one day, as Dover. Well, at this point, I did not know if they were scamming. So, I sent an ASEM from an account that I set up that looks like a lad account, asking for help with my maga. While talking to me about spreading [the church], he was writing my lad character back with directions on what to do.

And later:

I truly believe that they would set up the church. I have dealt with a LOT of lads. I am pretty good at spotting a [genuine church member]. And I honestly think that these guys would do a fine job as [church] ministers. I reallt think that they would be the real deal. I think that they would set up shop and actually run the church. I will not be so naive to think that money is not a part of it. But I truly believe these idiots think that this is their way out.

A few weeks later:

They most certainly are [continuing their scams from Chad]. Like I said, we are currently straight baiting them as other, non-related characters.

I won’t even go into the ethics of any of the parties posing as a representative of a bogus religious organization, because that’s enough material for a whole entire blog (or a Commandment), just by itself…

Here are some additional perspectives about scam baiting:

* This title is purposefully ambiguous about whether this is baiting OF scum and/or BY scum. You decide.



  1. I heard that episode while I was fixing lunch Sunday and was at first appalled and astonished at the scam baiter’s behaviors. I guess I still am. The level of vindictive, ugly behavior exhibited by them towards third world scammers is not proportionate to the primary sucker play of the scammers.

    And I thought of you when they said the Ivory Coast and wondered if you were listening.

    Comment by jpm14 — September 17, 2008 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

  2. Yes, it is tricky; while we know that some scammers have even murdered their victims, we do not know that THESE PARTICULAR scammers have done or would do something like that.

    The baiters are pretty sure, however, that any scammer *would* happily separate someone from all of their assets.

    Go read one or both of the two links in the last group of links in the post… There are some pretty horrific stories of things that happened to scam victims. Do these cases make it OK to treat all scammers as if they had committed these acts? Probably not.

    Do these cases make it OK to enjoy causing another human to suffer? For me, no. For others the answer seems to be “yes.” Even contemplating scam baiting really pushes individuals to find those lines within themselves, and that is interesting.

    Comment by origamifreak — September 19, 2008 @ 12:21 am | Reply

  3. Oy, the baiters are treating the whole thing like a game. I like how you pointed out why scammers are usually not onto the baiters “The reason scammers might not suspect early that they’re being baited is because in their world, (the third world), it is inconcievable that anyone would use time and money to sit around on the internet and mess with people just for fun, with no expectation of profit.”

    In theory we know that lives in the 3rd world countries are day to day struggle for survival, but to actually have lived it briefly gives you (and us by default) an eye opening experience.

    A few years back one of the newsmagazine show (20/20?) did a short profile of one of the baiters who send the scammers on a while goose chase. I had mixed feelings for all parties involved. In the end I only know that I will never be involved in either activities, it’s just so icky.

    Comment by Kathie — October 4, 2008 @ 9:03 am | Reply

  4. Another scammer has been sent into the void.

    This one was posing as a humanitarian organization helping starving children in Darfur. He was actually in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He is now about 100 miles from the border of the crisis. Sounds like poetic justice to me.

    Comment by Reverend Howard — December 6, 2008 @ 9:51 am | Reply

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