Turning the Tables on E-Mail Swindlers

I’ve always assumed that most accounts of people playing tricks on e-mail hoaxsters, such as that rich prince from Nigeria who needs me to loan him some money, were urban legends. Apparently not all of them are.

NYT – Turning the Tables on E-Mail Swindlers [RSS]

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 empty-handed.

A 47-year-old manufacturing executive in Lincoln, Neb., said he had been engaged in such pranks for almost three years. “I’ve had many, many good laughs at their expense, and have spent nothing but time,” he said. “They have spent countless hours creating fake documents, obtaining photos of themselves holding funny signs, running to the Western Union miles away from where they live to obtain money which I never actually sent, and printing out counterfeit checks to send me.” As for his motivation, he said, “Hopefully, along the way, I’ve diverted enough of their time and resources to keep them from successfully scamming at least one hapless (albeit, most likely, greedy) victim.”

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 South Africa and the seizure of property used by West African expatriates to conduct fraud. Last month, he said, they provided information that led to the closing of a fake South African embassy in Amsterdam that fraud artists had established to lend credence to their operations. One Saudi victim had lost $100,000 to that group, Mr. Visser said. He added that when the fraud baiters provide reliable information about fraud in unrelated countries, he relays the tips through Interpol.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    Steve at Little Tiny Lies/Hog On Ice (www.littletinylies.com) has been leading on several of these pranksters for a number of weeks with absolutely hilarious letters (including sending one a photo of madeleine albright as “his” photo.