Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Scambaiting Those Nigerian Emailers...

We've all, at some point, received that famous email from a Nigerian scammer asking us to electronically wire a few thousand dollars to him in order to process our previously undiscovered inheritance, or some such nonsense. While most of us just shake our heads and laugh with incredulity at these attempts, a huge number of people do, still, actually fall for such scams.

Well, now people are fighting back.

"Scambaiting" is all the rage. It's the new practice of actually responding to the Nigerian scammers and their brethren (collectively known as "419 scammers") with the express purpose of misleading them into believing that you're willing to send them money. The goal, of course, is to set them out on a wild goose chase, ultimately wasting their time that would have been spent on scamming real victims, and even frustrating them to the point of quitting.

As Ars Technica explains, "flourishing communities of scambaiters [have arisen] who help each other do everything they can to waste scammers' time, including enticing them to get ridiculous tattoos and sending them on treks across Africa for nonexistent cash".

[One baiter named] 'blah' had fun with a scammer and airport security in London, resulting in his being detained for several hours. "He was waiting for me to arrive on a flight that I wasn't actually on. I told him to show up with a black backpack and hold it very very close to his chest (that's how I would know that it was him). Airport security didn't find it amusing, apparently, and thought he was acting suspicious," blah said. "My plane fictitiously arrived after he had been detained and I ended up chewing the scammer out for being so inconsiderate as to get detained and leave me waiting for an hour until I finally just hailed a cab and went to my hotel. When airport security finally released him, he went and waited in the lobby-bar of the hotel for four additional hours while I 'freshened-up' in my room."

Successfully baiting a scammer has become a badge of honor in these communities. Their stories, along with strategic advice and even a mentoring program, are shared on websites like The 419 Eater and ScamWarners.

While the ethical merits of scambaiters can be debated, it is nevertheless a fascinating development. Just think that, after all these years, perhaps the best way to get rid of online scammers and spammers was to actually give them the very responses that they were soliciting. If one person replies, they are a victim; but if everyone replies as a form of collective action, they are protecting themselves.

It's counter-intuitive, and it's also nothing short of a new type of cyberwarfare. And, of course, one can't help but relish the irony of those Nigerian scammers getting all upset over being misled.


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