White hunters, black hearts

By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 12, 2007

In one classic prank, a baiter purported to be CEO of a video-production company, claiming that his firm was giving out scholarship payments to aspiring actors worldwide. All one had to do was submit footage of oneself acting out scenes from popular movies and TV shows.

Log on to YouTube and you can watch two scammers — or actors hired by the scammers — re-enacting Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. (“He’s a steeff!” the Nigerian thespian complains. “Bereft of life, ’e rests in peace! If you ’adn’t nailed ’eem to the perch, ’e’d be pushing up the daisies!”)

It was a smashing success, about as good as a scambait can get. As the baiter wrote proudly: “The scammer, greedy for money, fell for the story hook, line, and sinker.”

But not all scambait videos are so amusing. For instance, one baiter responded to a 419 e-mail, professing to represent a Hollywood stunt agency. Would the scammer like to audition?

So it is that one can visit YouTube and watch clips of a man taking brutal punches to the skull, jumping off roofs, falling off ladders, leaping through flaming hoops, and setting his pant legs afire as he runs howling in pain.

“I’ll be curious to see the reaction here if someone dies,” writes a poster on 419Eater.com. “[I]s it ethical to . . . get him to beat himself up . . . when he is clearly such a complete idiot?”

The disclaimer at 419Eater.com is oft-repeated:

It should be noted that scambaiters do NOT go actively seeking scammers of a certain skin colour. We only engage thieves who send us e-mails trying to steal from us. We do not target any particular type of person or country.

Fine. But it doesn’t change the fact that those “Trophy Room” photos can be unsettling on a very visceral level. What sort of desperation possesses a man to tattoo some guy’s screen name on his back like a slave’s brand? How hard up for cash can a person be?

And what kind of person delights in watching — or worse, instructing — another human being to do such things to themselves? Has geographical remove, coupled with the anonymity afforded by the Internet, allowed some baiters — the vast majority of whom are Westerners — to be more sadistic than necessary in their vigilante punishment? In many instances, it seems that the more righteous aspects of this freewheeling, freelance justice seeking have given way to baser motives. What happens when these baits stop being clever time-wasters and become purely punitive and dehumanizing?

Is scambaiting a clever way to combat corrupt actors preying on desperate and foolish people? Or do some of the more derogatory baits say something about our darker selves, laying bare the divide between white and black, rich and poor, First World and Third?

Scams across the world
Most people start scambaiting for the right reasons. “It’s an interesting hobby, given my own skills as a PI,” says “Boston Boomer,” a Hub private investigator who posts under that name on another board, TheScambaiter.com (and who declined to give his real name for this article). “At the same time, it serves a purpose.”

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