It may well be, as another 419Eater disclaimer puts it, that “for the most part these criminals are not ‘poor people trying to scratch a living,’ but are indeed very prosperous compared to their law-abiding countrymen, and many operate in highly organised, and highly successful criminal gangs.”
But it’s also true (as 419Eater argues, as well) that many people in the photos are not the scammers themselves, but regular Nigerians who’ve been dragooned, either via the promise of money or the threat of violence, into posing for them.
And knowing that, there’s an extra layer of squeamishness looking at a man in tribal dress holding a placard declaring I LIKE TO GIVE HEAD or a woman, standing in the dirt road of a ramshackle village, with a sign saying FARQ MEE ARSE BANDIT, or a skinny, naked man stretching out his penis, or a woman, straw in her mouth, staring vacantly into the camera as she holds a sign: I FELCH FOR PEACE.
Even if every post on boards such as these is wiped clean of the N-word — sample sanitized post: “My dream came true...........I busted your ass. You stupid **DELETED (n)**” — the practice leads to some sticky moral questions.
Crossing the line
“The whole situation is just fraught with annoying amounts of complexity,” says Baratunde Thurston, a Boston comedian and author (one of whose books, Better Than Crying, includes a couple funny chapters that detail his replies to spam e-mailers).
Thurston is black. And his first name is Nigerian, even if he himself is not. He’s also a good-hearted guy who’s been prone in the past to fall for cons; he once forked over $20 to a guy on the street, only to find out later it wasn’t used for its stated purpose. Even so, he recognizes that “there are a whole lot of desperate people in the world who think their only option is to take advantage of somebody else.”
He has no problem with scambaiting. “I think the mission is a good one,” he says. “I’m happy they’re out there wasting their time. By them [the scammers] e-mailing those guys [the baiters], they’re not e-mailing me.” And, yes, as a comedian, he can appreciate the utilitarian absurdity of some of the more creative pranks. “Watching the Monty Python sketch, I was thinking, ‘Y’know, those are pretty good actors!’ They’re committed. If they started an improv troupe, it would be enjoyable to work with them.”
But when the baits descend into pure humiliation, exacting debasing punishment for its own sake, Thurston gets queasy. “You have an African woman holding up a sign to the effect of ‘I’m a whore.’ Ugh. That’s too much. There’s too much joy in the humiliation.”
Especially bothersome for him, he says, are the “coonish connotations.” Consider one YouTube clip, in which a baiter goads a scammer into an impromptu performance. As a preface, the baiter has produced a little montage: the scammer first poses with a sign calling himself “Fudge Nugget.” Then his face is Photoshopped onto various silly and/or explicit album covers. It all culminates with him performing a soft-shoe song-and-dance routine on a small, foot-lit stage.
There’s no denying the buffoonish echoes of minstrelsy in the performance — whether they’re intentional on the baiter’s part or not. And there’s certainly no mistaking the palpable glee of one YouTube visitor, commenting on another clip of the same dancing scammer: “What a dumb monkey!!!!”