White hunters, black hearts

Scambaiting turns the tables on Internet con men. But when the clever pranks turn dangerous and degrading, where does the moral compass point?
By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 12, 2007

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.

Photographic memories
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.

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