It’s also true that the law has been largely powerless to stop the practice. But while the feebleness of legal recourse means scambaiting serves a need, argues Thurston, there’s a line that can be crossed.
“When we get in that vigilante mindset,” he says, “it’s very easy to slowly become that which we oppose. You’re dehumanizing them and playing off of racism. Then the mission is no longer noble.”
Is it too much to compare the debasement of scammers to the photographed degradation at Abu Ghraib? Probably. But Thurston sees certain parallels between baiters and the “vengeful post-9/11 reaction” of US foreign policy. “How much have we undermined our own initial goals by pursuing questionable means of justice?”
Says Thurston: “Maybe I’ll start my own vigilante scambaiter-baiter service. Get scambaiters to hold up signs saying: ‘Neo-colonial online activist.’ ”
There’s another geo-historical wrinkle to all this. One poster on 419Eater quotes a scammer’s e-mail to him: “i have swindled millions of collars [sic] from u greedy white people . . . it is pay back time to what u colonial masters did to us africans during the era of slavery.”
Boston Boomer scoffs at the idea that scamming exacts a sort of cosmic revenge on the plunderous West. “You have these scam artists whose attitude is, ‘We’re poor people, and we’re turning the tide on Western culture.’ But they end up targeting some of the poorest people here in the US and Canada. The people who end up answering these e-mails are usually people who are in desperate straits to start with, and they end up losing, potentially, their life savings.”
Thurston (who recently moved to New York), just laughs. “I see a whole bunch of white people walking around New York. I could just go and rob them and say, ‘That’s for my name being Thurston!’ ”
Arguably, scamming is even more damaging to Africans than it is to its Western victims. As one poster on 419Eater.com puts it: “These scammers are doing everything in their power to diminish the world’s view of Africans, especially Nigerians.”
Another baiter writes: “I have lived in West Africa for 4 years and I am married to a West African. I have seen first hand that . . . the most screwed up countries are not necessarily those who were the most colonized or those most exploited for the slave trade, but those who suffer most from corruption.” Thanks to 419 scammers, she writes, every bank transfer made there is held up by red flags because the area is associated with fraud.
“A lot of people have the opinion that these are poor people and they’re [scamming] to make a living,” says The Failure. But, he argues, that’s not always the case.
“The people sending out the e-mails work for a boss called the Oga. The average Nigerian cannot even afford to go to the [Internet] café, but the Oga, the one with the money, can pay five or six of them to send out e-mails. You can’t really pity this poor Nigerian guy who’s just trying to put food on the table. He’s getting paid to do it. This is really just taking money from the boss’s pocket.”