Scamming the Spammers

Internet spammers are creative, but so are the people devoted to catching them


| June 7, 2007


Spam -- those unwanted, illegal emails that clog inboxes worldwide with pleas from deposed princes or secrets to boosting sexual performance -- is notoriously hard to stop. Even as investigators hail the recent capture of Robert Soloway, the 27-year-old known as the 'Spam King,' who is accused of sending millions of unwanted emails, Jennifer LeClaire of the technology news service NewsFactor.com reports that internet security experts believe the volume of spam will 'remain unchanged.'

In response to this onslaught of spam, Ron Rosenbaum of the Atlantic (Subscription required) reports that a culture of counter-con artists known as 'scam-baiters' has emerged to fight the spammers themselves. Rosenbaum focuses on one group known as 419 Eater, which claims more than 20,000 registered members. The anti-spam crusaders focus their efforts on the notorious Nigerian-style email scam run by '419 scammers' -- named after the Nigerian penal code for fraud (419) -- who send out mass emails promising access to a vast African fortune in order to lure money from unsuspecting victims.

The 419 Eater community tries to 'reverse this dynamic,' Rosenbaum reports, and scam the scammers. Members respond to Nigerian-style emails, 'simply to waste their time and resources,' according to the group's website. Scam-baiters play the role of an unwitting victim who is tantalizingly close to sending in money. 'Blinded by the same greed that blinds their marks,' Rosenbaum writes, scammers are enticed into a series of time-consuming and often humiliating tasks deemed necessary for the financial transaction. Scammers have taken long trips (known as 'safaris') to collect promised money, many have posed for humiliating photos, and some have even been fooled into transcribing lengthy novels (such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter adventures) entirely by hand. One particularly gullible scammer carved an intricate wooden sculpture of a computer after a scam-baiter posed as a representative of an art gallery. Evidence and photographs of successful scam-baiting is then posted on a part of the 419 Eater website known as the 'trophy room.'

The righteous veneer of the scam-baiters as 'cyber-guardians' begins to wear off, according to Rosenbaum, when visiting this trophy room. Searching through the posted photos, it is not difficult to see a trend: Nearly every victim of the scam-baiters is black. The website states, 'Scambaiting is not a racist activity. Anyone with racist views is most definitely NOT welcome on this site.' But Rosenbaum points out that the rhetoric used by the 419 Eater of 'owning' scammers (when a scam-baiting session is successful) is problematic.

If sites like the 419 Eater would simply, '[l]ose the trophy rooms,' Rosenbaum argues, many of the racist undertones of the group would be dispelled. Humiliating photos do little to help the fight against internet fraud. Rosenbaum writes that the scam-baiters are 'superhero-like' in their mission to protect innocent people from spam, but is quick to add, 'I like my superheroes humble.'

Go there >>How To Trick an Online Scammer Into Carving a Computer Out of Wood

Go there too >> 419 Eater.com