If you want to appear like you’re at the cutting edge of net culture but can’t be bothered to spend hours online, then never fear. Scotsman.com’s pathetic team of geeks, freaks and gimps will do the hard work for you. While you sip wine, read a book or engage in normal social interaction, they will burn out their retinas staring at badly designed web pages and dodge creeps in chatrooms to prepare for you: Scotsman.com’s lazy guide to net culture.
This week’s online fad: Nigerian Scam Baiting
Does this ring any bells?
GREETINGS MY BLESSED FRIEND,
A MUTUAL FRIEND HAS RECOMMENDED YOU AS A MOST TRUSTY AND SERIOUS PERSON TO DO BUSINESS WITH.
I AM THE WIDOW OF THE LATE SANI ABACHA OR HEAD OF THE PAN-AFRICA BANK IN LAGOS OR EXECUTOR OF THE WILL OF THE LATE SIR WALDO POPPYSOCKS.
I AM IN THE UNFORTUNATE POSITION OF NEEDING TO MOVE $315 MILLION OF SOMEONE ELSE’S MONEY OUT OF MY COUNTRY. AS THIS IS HUGELY ILLEGAL I NEED THE HELP OF AN ACCOMPLICE BASED ABROAD. OBVIOUSLY I HAVE CHOSEN YOU, A COMPLETE STRANGER.
FOR YOUR HELP IN THIS MATTER, YOU WILL RECEIVE 50% OF THE TOTAL SUM.
BUT WE WILL NEED TO PAY EXPENSES OF $5,000 TO MOVE THE MONEY. SADLY, I CANNOT PAY THIS EVEN THOUGH I HAVE JUST TOLD YOU I HAVE MILLIONS IN THE BANK.
WE NEED TO ACT QUICKLY SO COULD YOU SEND ME YOUR NAME, ADDRESS, FAX NUMBER, BANK DETAILS, INSIDE LEG MEASUREMENT AND A NOTE OF WHEN YOUR HOUSE WILL BE UNOCCUPIED.
ALSO I WILL NEED A MONEY TRANSFER OF SEVERAL THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR THE ABOVE CHARGES.
OH AND DON’T TELL ANYONE YOU’RE DOING THIS BECAUSE IT’S ALL ILLEGAL.
FINALLY, COULD YOU FLY OUT TO AFRICA SO THAT SEVERAL LARGE AND VIOLENT ACCOMPLICES OF MINE CAN BEAT SEVEN SHADES OF SHIATSU OUT OF YOU AND HOLD YOU HOSTAGE UNTIL YOUR POOR RELATIVES PAY US A HUGE RANSOM FOR YOUR GULLIBLE CARCASE.
MAY THE LORD BLESS YOU, ETC, ETC, ETC
If you have not received an email similar to this then you either do not have a computer or are a programming genius who has developed some kind of wonder anti-spam software that is worth billions.
The above parody is a distilled version of the classic Nigerian 419 scam. The name reflects such cons’ usual country of origin and the section of its penal code that they violate. The deception is also known as West African advance fee fraud.
The details differ but the offer is always the same: earn millions by helping strangers illegally move money, don’t tell anyone and send sensitive financial information followed by thousands of dollars.
NB: if your IQ is slightly lower than that of the average goldfish it is worth reinforcing such offers are a total con. The only money that will be moving is yours. The endgame can involve a trip to a foreign country where you will be beaten up and held hostage.
The scam has been around for years and has evolved in parallel with communication technology. First the letters came by post, then by fax. Now they have embraced email and flood in-boxes around the world like some kind of e-Biblical plague.
Such letters from Maryam Abacha, corrupt Nigerian government officials and over-charging West African contractors are among the most common forms of spam, rivalling porn, free "Viagra" and "intimate enhancement" products.
419s are easy to spot. Many of them use a lot of religious language to show how sincere they are, their approach to spelling is refreshingly free form and a disproportionate number of them have a penchant for WRITING IN CAPITALS.
The peculiar style of these messages has attracted a cult following. They offer fertile ground for parody. There is even a site that randomly generates personalised 419 spam based on a few key words you have chosen. Have a go here.
Despite all this, people still fall for these ridiculous gambits and greed induces gullibility in the face of reason. In 2002, some 150 Britons were taken in by these fraudsters to the tune of 8.4 million. The US Secret Service estimates that Americans lose $100 million dollars a year to these scams. That’s an awful lot of money and not very much sense.
Unsurprisingly, the police take this issue very seriously. The Metropolitan Police have a comprehensive guide to the fraud here.
Others however, are fighting back outside the law by tying the fraudsters up in pointless correspondence. This is known as Nigerian Scam Baiting.
It has been dubbed the new Internet bloodsport.
One group of scam baiters, the Chaos Project, invites others to join in thus: "Perhaps you too will be inspired to adopt a 'pet Nigerian fraudster'. Remember, as well as amusing yourself and your friends, you are doing the world a service by monopolising the time and frustrating the efforts of these people."
Of course, there are risks associated with this kind of behaviour. The fraudsters are, after all, criminals and don’t take kindly to interference.
Wannabe e-vigilantes set up email accounts under assumed names (it's very important not to use a traceable account) and use these to play the fraudsters along. They answer the invitation enthusiastically, send off false details and see how long they can keep the pretence up. They even forge receipts for money transfers and airline tickets to show the criminals that they are serious.
Some online crime fighters don’t just restrict themselves to wasting the fraudsters’ time. They mock them – and post the results on websites like hunters displaying the heads of prey on walls. You can read some examples on Scamorama, which celebrates scam baiters.
Clueless 419 criminals have carried out extensive correspondence with such individuals as R U Sirrius, Hans Gneesunt-Boompsadazi and Stew de Baker Hawke (the Studebaker Hawk was a 1950s car).
One 419 perpetrator demanded a photograph of the person he was trying to defraud and was rewarded with a picture of the male model Fabio. After some questions, he accepted this as proof of identity and the email relationship continued until the penny finally dropped.
We are not dealing here with a criminal mastermind to rival Professor Moriarty.
These email exchanges are like a game of tennis. The fraudster wants to conclude matters quickly. The art of the baiter is to stretch things out for as long as possible without arousing suspicion. The "victim" may also make bizarre demands of their would-be beneficiary. The fraudster has to keep their correspondent happy and has no choice but to play along, often answering questions of a sexual nature.
However, the Everest of scam baiting is to con the conmen and get the fraudsters to part with cold hard cash. Only a few have managed this. One, writing under the moniker Bart Simpson, managed it by telling his Nigerian criminal target that he was being courted by another offer from West Africa. Bart said that this other correspondent had sent him $5 in a greeting card and he would sever his relationship unless the fraudster did the same thing.
The money duly arrived. While $5 is not much, it's the principle that counts.
Particularly vindictive anti-spammers will also send "supporting documents" to the fraudsters. When downloaded, these are found to contain not helpful bank details but particularly vicious viruses that cripple the criminal’s computers.
One scam baiter managed to get her target to fall for this seven times before he got the message. Read how here. This means he either saw seven expensive PCs reduced to smoking rubble or spent an awful lot of money on repairs. It's hard to feel much sympathy for him.
Of course, this kind of vigilanteism is utterly reprehensible and legally questionable.
It just happens to be very amusing as well.