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Is This Email a Scam? You Bet. Now Try to Answer Some More.

Updated on January 11, 2012

You've probably gotten something like this in your inbox. Someone with an unusual name -- Mr. Jefferson Thomas, perhaps, or Mr. Wagner Robert -- needs your help. He represents a very important person in Nigeria who has to get out of the country quickly because the political situation has become too dangerous. Not only does this person need to smuggle himself and his family out. He also has to move two trunkfuls of cash he's collected over the years -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. If you agree to be their contact and to take custody of the money for them until its rightful owner is free to claim it -- even though little old you has no experience in this kind of thing whatsoever -- you will be richly rewarded with a commission.

Would ten percent be acceptable to you?

$100 -- Something You Won't See Much of If You Answer a 419 Scam Email
$100 -- Something You Won't See Much of If You Answer a 419 Scam Email | Source

Show Me the (Black) Money

If that offer sounds too good to be true, you're right -- it is. What you've received is the opening salvo of what's known as an advance fee fraud (also known as a 419 scam, which gets its name from the section of the Nigerian penal code that deals with such matters).

What is a 419 scam? Basically it works as follows. In order for you to collect the money you have to put up some of your own money to resolve the logistical issues involved in getting it out of the country. This isn't as simple as bringing home a souvenir. There are lawyers to be paid, papers to be filed, taxes to be collected, and yes, officials to be bribed. Every time you turn around it seems that someone else wants a piece of the action, and the dance continues until you either give up or have gone broke trying to snag that two million.

If by some miracle you do happen to have some money left, you then get drawn into the deeper part of the game. You travel to Nigeria or wherever. Assuming you don't get mugged somewhere along the way, you will finally get to see those promised trunkfuls -- but now there's a new problem. It's dangerous leaving all that money lying around, and taking it out of the country would raise Customs issues anyway, so in order to get the money out safely, it's all been dyed black with a special chemical. An expert will be brought in to show you that it's true. He'll take a packet of the black paper, pour another special chemical on it, and the black dye will wash off -- revealing what appear to be genuine $100 bills underneath.

This, of course, is classic bunco. There's even a classic name for it -- a wash-wash scheme. Of course the chemist only has a limited supply of the special chemical on hand. Of course it's very expensive to make more of it. And of course without the chemical you can't use the cash -- or even say for certain that what's in the trunks is cash.

Scambaiters to the Rescue

If it sounds like you're never going to get your hands on that two million, you've figured it out. And if you ever get a scam email like this, it's wise just to throw it in the trash.

Sadly, many people don't throw it in their trash. And they end up paying dearly for that decision.

It's with those people in mind that a community has sprung up to combat these sorts of abuses. The members are known as scambaiters, and while they may not be thwarting every scam that's out there, they often give scammers a run for their money.

The basic idea behind scambaiting is that what's good for the goose is even better for the gander. Scambaiters will take an email and answer it, but they're onto the game. They know these guys are dangerous. That's why they never respond using their own name but rather with a bogus one under a different (an untraceable) email account. Men pose as women. College students pose as priests. Nothing is quite as it appears in this shadowy world. Once they've gotten the attention of the scammer (known in the scambaiting community as a lad), the baiters will then try to string him along as much as possible so he won't have the time or the energy to go after a real mark.

In other words, they scam scammers.

There's no money to be had in this venture. Baiters will tell you they're doing this to provide a public service -- or that they're doing it purely for sport. Sure, some of them might be clever enough to get the lad to send them some money, but baiters will reject this idea on legal and ethical grounds. They get their remuneration in other ways.

Let's Go to Church

One way to scam the scammers is to collect what is known as a trophy. This is generally a photograph of the scammer, posed in such a way as to make him appear ridiculous. Maybe the baiter will get him to write something on his chest or hold up a placard or a certain object as a sign of trust. The key to getting him to do so is to tell a convincing story from the beginning. Belonging to a fictional church is a common route to snagging trophies. If the scambaiter, for example, introduces himself as the head pastor of the Church of the Dead Fish, he might ask the scammer to join the flock before he surrenders any money. Of course the scammer must prove his devotion by holding up a dead fish.

Another way to fight Nigerian 419 fraud is to shut down a bank. It's not a real bank, of course. What scammers do is create websites that look like banks to use as a vehicle for collecting their victims' money. To use a website for such a fraudulent purpose is of course a violation of the agreement between the web owner and their host. What the baiter will do is allow the scammers to take the scam far enough so that the baiter can obtain the necessary banking information. Then, either on his own or through a specialist in the community known as a bank-killer, he will notify the hosting service of the probable fraud. The host will then close down the site, making it inaccessible to the scammers or anyone else.

Perhaps the most elegant coup of all is the orchestration of what is known as a safari. Here the baiter agrees to meet the lad and promises to be in such and such a place on such and such a date. Naturally, the money-hungry lad agrees. Unfortunately, at the last minute the baiter seems to be plagued with all sorts of logistical problems. His plane is late. He got the name of the hotel wrong or he got there too early and the lad wasn't there. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, so the two of them have to reschedule the meeting, often in a different city. It turns out that there are complications with that meeting, too, so they need to have a third meeting, and so on, until the lad has thrown up his hands in frustration. Of course the baiter never intended to meet the lad. He never even bothered to get a plane ticket. Thanks to Photoshop and VOIP, he's manipulated everything from the comfort of his own home.

Playing a Part

If nothing else, the scambaiting community is certainly a lively one, and if you'd like to get in on the fun, you can -- but beware. Advance fee scammers are dangerous, and you'd never want to take them on without a thorough grounding in how to do so in a way that doesn't come back to harm you. The website offers a lot of good advice in this area. They even have a mentoring program for newbies.

If you're just curious or are simply interested in a laugh, you might want to check out the website which posts complete correspondence between the scammers and the scambaiters.


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