By SETH SCHIESEL
ON the face of it, everyone on the Internet should be rich by now.
After all, you've almost surely received e-mail from at least one intriguing
stranger in a far-off land offering fabulous riches if only you will help
recover some lost fortune. It might be $25 million spirited away during the fall
of an obscure African regime. Or $400 million in oil lucre seized by one of
Saddam Hussein's sons. All you, dear friend, need provide is a helping hand
(ideally your bank account) and a few small fees, and perhaps a quarter of the
money will be yours.
Of course, there is no fortune to be had. The only money changing hands will
be yours, given to one of the thousands of so-called advance fee fraud artists
haunting the Internet. Hailing largely from Nigeria and other West African
countries, the ''419'' con artists -- so known for a section of the Nigerian
legal code -- have bilked the na´ve and the greedy out of hundreds of millions
of dollars, according to law enforcement estimates. Some victims have traveled
overseas to meet their supposed business partners, only to be robbed or
As a page at the Web site of the Nigerian Embassy in
Now, however, an ad hoc militia of self-styled counterscammers on several
continents is taking the fight directly to the thieves. Aiming to outwit the
swindlers, they invent elaborate and often outrageous identities (Venus de Milo,
Lord Darth Vader) under which they engage the con men, trying to humiliate them
and, more important, waste the grifters' time and resources.
They then chronicle the exploits, documented by elaborate e-mail exchanges,
at sites like Scamorama (www.scamorama.com). They also gather financial and
technical information about the fraud artists, who are sometimes part of broader
criminal networks, and refer their findings to law enforcement officials. Some
of the antifraud efforts even appear to straddle the bounds of legality:
disabling fake bank Web sites used to dupe the unwitting, or breaking into
swindlers' e-mail accounts to warn victims already on the hook.
Part vigilante patrol, part neighborhood watch, part comedy troupe, the
counterscammers are trying to beat the thieves of the Internet at their own
game. And they certainly appear to enjoy doing it.
''There are all these people in
But most of those involved seem content with spinning fabulous yarns that
turn the tables on the perpetrators -- in rare cases, even to the point of
getting swindlers to send them money.
In one escapade recounted at Scamorama, a fraud baiter posing as one Pierpont
Emanuel Weaver, a wealthy businessman, appeared to persuade a con man in Ghana
in 2002 to send almost $100 worth of gold to Indiana -- for ''testing purposes
as my chemist requires'' -- after being asked to put up $1.8 million for a share
in a gold fortune. In other cases, swindlers are tricked into posing for
pictures holding self-mocking signs, pictures then posted online. Or they are
led to travel hundreds of miles to pick up a payment, only to come up
A 47-year-old manufacturing executive in
And while not every success story can be substantiated, some law enforcement
officials say the fraud baiters had proved to be crucial allies.
''I personally feel that we wouldn't have had the same effect with our
initiative if we hadn't combined forces with the international scam-baiting
community,'' Rian Visser, an inspector and electronic-fraud investigator for the
South African Police Service, said in a telephone interview. ''I can't see any
law enforcement agency not making use of them. They are on the front lines, and
they have information that is very valuable.''
In March, Mr. Visser established www.419legal.org as a clearinghouse for
information about advance-fee fraud and as a launching pad for attacking fraud
artists. (Mr. Visser said his government's approval process for creating an
official site would have taken months.)
Since March, he said, the fraud baiters have provided information that has
led to seven arrests in
Mr. Visser estimated that such schemes reap more than $100 million a year
worldwide. Fraud baiters say that most victims lose around $3,000, but some far
Arrest and prosecution are difficult because of the international nature of
the operations. But in January, the Dutch national police arrested 52 suspected
con men in
And with the geography-erasing power of the Internet, it is not just major
national police forces who are working with the fraud baiters. For instance,
Karl J. Dailey, the sheriff of
''It went from snail mail to faxes to e-mails,'' Sheriff Dailey said in a
telephone interview from his office in
Sheriff Dailey pointed out that the legality of activities like cracking into
e-mail accounts and shutting down Web sites, even patently fraudulent ones,
might be dubious at best. But he echoed Mr. Visser in lauding the baiters.
''It's one of these areas that's gray,'' Sheriff Dailey said, ''but I think it's
serving a very useful purpose because the more miserable we can make these
knuckleheads, the better. I'm all for it. More power to them and I'll do
anything I can to help them, within the law.''
A few of the fraud baiters appear to be motivated by racism (most of the con
artists appear to be black Africans, operating either in Africa or in
''It's not the Nigerian people we're talking about,'' said the Australian
operating as Stuart de Baker Hawke. ''We don't care where the scammers are from
or what color they are. We care about their activities.''
Fraud baiters and law enforcement officials in several countries said that
419 con artists were often associated with broader, often violent criminal
groups. For that reason, they all encourage extreme caution when baiting. For
instance, never use your real name, they say. Some officials discourage the
''We advise people absolutely not to respond; just ignore them,'' said a
spokeswoman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service in
But chase some do. Looking ahead, some fraud baiters said they might succeed
in substantially eradicating such schemes, at least on the Internet. One of
those involved in fighting the con artists, a 48-year-old winery technician in
central California, pointed to work on software tools called auto-baiters, meant
to flood fraud artists with what appear to be real leads. ''Hopefully someone
will take it over and do it on an industrial scale,'' he said. ''We want the
scammers to spend so much time on fake responses that they can't figure out
which ones are real.''
But others fear that in the battle to protect na´ve Internet users from
themselves, human nature may not work in their favor.
''What was it that P.T. Barnum said about a sucker every minute?'' the
Australian baiter said. ''People have been getting scammed forever. Greed
Many sites serve as clearinghouses for information about efforts to outwit online fraud artists, and recount their success in doing so.
Perhaps the most extensive archive of completed fraud-bait operations.
Well-stocked portal for fraud-baiters, with message boards.
Message board for fraud-baiters.
Run by a South African police inspector.
Called Artists against 419, this site hijacks graphics from fraudulent Web sites to waste the schemers' bandwidth.
A site for victims of many kinds of fraud, including the 419 variety.
From Greed to Sheepishness: Analyzing the Victim
THE advance-fee fraud is an art form that has evolved over decades,
originating in postal mail. The typical premise is that there is a big cache of
cash (or gold or diamonds) in some remote country and that an innocent party
(the fraud artist) needs someone trustworthy in another nation (you) to gain
access to it. For your help, you will receive millions of dollars.
''What happens next is the most crucial point in the fraud and can take a
number of directions,'' a 1997 State Department report said. ''A victim will be
advised that the deal is near completion, however, an emergency has arisen and
money is needed to pay an unforeseen government fee or tax before the money can
be released. If the fee is paid, the criminals will come up with another
'problem' that requires immediate payment by the victim. Each 'problem' is
supported by 'official' documentation.''
So who falls for this? It's all about the psychology of greed. In fact, some
victims want so badly to believe that they are going to profit in the end that
they ignore explicit personal warnings sent to them by fraud-baiters.
When they finally realize the offer is fraudulent, some victims are reluctant
to turn to law enforcement agencies because they essentially agreed to do
something illegal. After all, many of the schemes are based on moving money
while evading customs duties.
''Right there, once the person engages in this activity with a suspect, they
are sort of a co-conspirator in a crime that doesn't occur,'' said Stephen
Iannucci, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service's
He said officials were nonetheless still working to stop such operations,
largely because the con artists are often part of broader criminal groups. Seth