Nigerian or “419” scams have been around for many a long year and the Internet has become very fertile territory for the criminals that run them. Because these sorts of scams are so common, the pastime known as “scam baiting” has also rapidly grown in popularity.
Basically, scam baiting describes the act of stringing a scammer along by pretending to be interested in his bogus “deal”. To achieve this, the baiter may initially reply to a scam email feigning interest. When the scammer responds, the baiter will make every effort to keep him “hooked” for as long as possible. The goal is to “scam the scammer” and waste his time and money. Baiters may use a series of delaying tactics to keep the scammer interested. They may introduce other fictional characters to spin out the time it takes to close the supposed “deal”. Or they might trick the scammer into arranging fictional meetings, making expensive phone calls, booking hotel rooms for guests that never arrive, complying with eccentric requests or driving to pick up non-existent travellers from the airport.
Of course, the scammers deserve everything they get. Scam baiting has sometimes aided law enforcement authorities to apprehend criminals by providing useful information about their identity or whereabouts. Baiting can also divert scammers into wasting a considerable amount of time on a “victim” that they will never actually con. Time that may have otherwise been spent scamming real victims.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, a lot of scam baiting has tended to move away from this primary goal of thwarting criminals and into the realm of pure entertainment. Ironically, perhaps because of language and cultural factors, some scammers seem to be very naive and they are easily manipulated by astute baiters. The prolonged exchanges between baiter and scammer can appear quite funny to an observer who is in on the “sting”. In fact, there are entire websites devoted to scam baiting and publishing these humorous exchanges.
Therein lies a problem. Naturally, such sites tend to focus on the funniest and most prolonged of these scam baiting exchanges. Thus, it is quite easy for observers to draw the erroneous conclusion that all scammers are inherently dumb and thus easily manipulated. However, it could be very dangerous to underestimate these individuals. We should always keep in mind that, foolish and naive or not, these people are unscrupulous and unpredictable criminals. There have been violent attacks, abductions and even murders associated with Nigerian scams and the criminals that run them should not be trifled with.
“Professional” scam baiters go to great lengths to ensure that their real identity is protected. They use disposable email addresses and names, locations and circumstances used in the baiting will be entirely imaginary. Experienced baiters are very careful to ensure that no sensitive personal information is inadvertently leaked to their targets. However, given the increasing tendency to present scam baiting as entertainment, there is real potential for less experienced Internet users to jump headlong into what they perceive as a new and interesting Internet “sport” without taking the necessary steps to protect their identity. I know of cases in which amateur “baiters” have initiated a baiting session by simply replying directly to a scam email that arrived in their personal inbox – replies that include their real name and other personal information.
Moreover, having viewed a great many scam baiting exchanges, I sometimes wonder who is baiting whom. The scammer may not be as dumb as you think. Given his “trade”, he may actually be quite skilled at collating small pieces of information until he has enough to identify his baiter. You really do not want one of these scammers to know where you live or work, especially if you have antagonized him by a prolonged baiting session.
Thus, while scam baiting can play a useful role, it should only be practised under very controlled conditions by people who know how to effectively disguise their identity. And, personally, I do not think it should be carried out “just for fun”. As I’m sure the many thousands of scam victims around the world would testify, there is nothing remotely funny about these scammer scumbags or their activities.
People fall victim to scammers simply because they are unaware of how such scams operate. If you really want to get back at the slimeball that sent you that Nigerian scam email, don’t bait him, tell your friends instead. Spread the word! Talk to your friends, neighbours and workmates about such scams. Show them an example of the scam email you received. Make sure they know how to avoid becoming the scammer’s next mark. Ultimately, that is likely to be a lot more productive than a game of scam baiting, however, entertaining it may seem at the time.