I’m sure you’ve gotten one or a thousand of these in your inbox. The email from the (pick one: Nigerian businessman, widow, foreign government employee, bank employee, terminally ill millionaire) who needs your help to free unbelievably large amounts of money from some sort of legal entanglement, and in return, is willing to share some or all of that money with you.
It’s called “advanced fee fraud,” and it’s one of the oldest cons in the book, made new again by the advent of email and the internet. The con artist, or scammer, just needs a little bit of money from you to get the ball rolling, pay for some legal paperwork, grease some palms, etc., and then you can have riches beyond your imagination.
Except it’s all a lie. The only money that ever changes hands is yours, there’s always one more thing the scammer needs more money for, and you either pay until you wise up or until you’re bled dry. The scammer also sometimes uses this con to get personal details from the victim which he can then use in identity theft.
This is sometimes called “419” fraud after the section of the Nigerian penal code which deals with schemes such as these, since many of these scam emails originate in Nigeria.
The scammers are difficult to fight as they route their emails in a way that is difficult to trace. They also often operate out of third world countries where crime is already rampant and crimefighting resources scarce.
But take heart. There are people out there who are fighting back. They’re called “scambaiters.” Scambaiters pretend to be the willing victims of the email con-man in order to waste the scammers’ time (time that could otherwise be spent luring in real victims) and generally just to have a good laugh at the criminal’s expense. (For a more thorough definition of scambaiting, go to wikipedia.)
There are many websites that post messages between scammers and scambaiters. Some of these exchanges are fairly boring while others show comedic genius. For example, the email exchange involving a scambaiter posing as Lizzie Borden had me laughing so hard that my face hurt.
We’re all familiar with the story of Lizzie Borden who was accused of giving her father and stepmother 40 whacks with an axe in the late 1800s, but apparently the scammer had never heard of her.
When first approached by the scammer, “Lizzie” replies to tell the scammer she’s interested but she’s not sure if she’ll be able to participate because she’s “dealing with a small matter concerning the police.” Undeterred, the scammer writes back requesting some personal information and also more details regarding her problems with the police so that he can help her and “pray over it.” “Lizzie” responds:
“As to the police difficulties, my Mother and Father had a rather unfortunate incident which took their lives. It was clearly an accident, or perhaps an unknown intruder or something like that. Either way, I hope to be fully exonerated. I understand if you have some hesitancy to proceed given my current situation.”
It just gets funnier from there, with “Lizzie” dropping more and more hints as to her true identity and the scammer never catching on. You can read the entire Lizzie Borden exchange (involving many emails back and forth and a rather nice picture of two big trunks full of money from the scammer) at scamorama or visit their homepage for more email exchanges and fun links.
Another favorite pastime of scambaiters is to get a “trophy” from the criminal, usually in the form of the scammer emailing a picture of themselves with the scambaiter’s specifications in order to prove that the picture really is them. The pictures are designed to ridicule the unknowing scammers by having them pose in a ridiculous way (for example, with a giant block of cheese or a large fish balanced on their head) or holding a derogatory sign.
While there is many a good laugh to be had at the expense of these email scammers, be aware that most of these scammers are violent and dangerous. Victims of these scams have been known to be lured to other countries, kidnapped, tortured, and even murdered. If you’re going to bait them, use caution, common sense, and anonymity.
To see a list of the top 10 scams of 2006, of which Nigerian 419 Scams is #5, go to consumeraffairs.com.