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"Scambaiters" turn the tables on NIGERIAN FINANCE MINISTER

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***Please note small file size: 1482 x 1961 pixels*** Scambaiters convinced this con artist to pose for "security photos" to prove his identity. The baiters also got him to pay thousands of dollars in freight charges for packages of broken appliances. He believed they contained laptops.

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"Scambaiters" like Anthony DiSano respond to fraudulent e-mails and persuade the scam artists to pose for silly pictures or perform skits. DiSano also shares information with law enforcement.

Sick of receiving those e-mail messages from ex-Nigerian finance ministers, widows of deposed dictators and beleaguered petroleum moguls who need your help to transfer $21 million to the United States?

You’re not alone.

Those e-mails are invitations to a con game in which victims are persuaded to shell out thousands of dollars in phony taxes, bribes and wire transfer fees. Now some Internet vigilantes are fighting back.

These “scambaiters” respond to the fraudulent e-mail messages, posing as unwitting victims. Instead of paying out, they persuade the scammers to fill out elaborate forms or write messages in a made-up secret code. If the scammers bite, the baiters then talk them into more and more ridiculous acts: holding up silly signs, balancing objects on their heads, even performing Monty Python sketches on film.

Many scambaiters consider their reverse scam to be a kind of sport. Their goal is just to get the bad guys to do ridiculous things and then post the photos or video clips on the Internet. But the baiters also recognize that the more time the scam artists spend responding to their requests the less time the scammers have to lure real victims. Some even learn the scammers’ real identities and pass them on to law enforcement contacts.

“It’s a good laugh, especially if you can do the silly baits,” said Buck Fast, a scambaiter outside Glasgow, Scotland, who has gotten scammers to wear ballet tutus and sing made-up songs in recording studios. “I think a lot of people--once they realize the scope of the problem--I think it takes on a whole new dimension at that point.”

But experts warn that engaging the scammers is potentially dangerous and probably has little impact on the criminals’ overall success.

Con games involving up-front payments for the promise of future riches are centuries old, and the Nigerian frauds common today date to at least the 1970s. The solicitations began as international letters, then became faxes and finally have arrived as e-mail messages. They’re known as 419 scams, in reference to a section of Nigerian criminal code. Victims respond to the promise of a share of the money transfer if they will send money for wire fees and other costs.

“These con artists like all con artists are really skillful in appealing to our natural hope that it’s our lucky day,” said Susan Grant, director of the National Consumer League’s fraud center.

No single agency collects data about 419 losses, and most victims do not report the crime, but a Dutch investigative company estimates that advance fee frauds totaled $780 million in the United States and $3.8 billion worldwide in 2006. Though the scammers are concentrated in West Africa, they now operate in dozens of countries, and the scams have flourished thanks in part to a lack of international coordination between law enforcement agencies.

Scambaiters use dummy e-mail addresses and telephone numbers to protect their identities and employ the same tactics that the scammers themselves use--preying on their victims’ credulousness, frequently changing the terms of the deal and perpetually holding out the promise of a payout that’s just around the corner.

That’s why many baiters manage to entice the scammers with offers that have nothing to do with the original e-mail, several scambaiters said.

In one such example, an English scambaiter replied to a 419 e-mail message saying that he couldn’t do the transaction because he was too busy running his video production company, which he said was handing out scholarship money to promising actors. The men said they happened to be actors and would film an audition clip.

The result was a five-minute rendition of Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch, with two Nigerian men taking John Cleese's and Michael Palin’s original roles. They filmed the clip with a handheld camera in a dusty dry goods shop, and except for the actors’ thick West African accents, the performance was spot-on. They used a plastic decoy duck in place of the parrot. The video got close to 150,000 hits on YouTube last month.

One of the original Internet scambaiters is Mike Sodini, known online as the Ebola Monkey Man. Sodini received a 419 e-mail message while working in a real estate office in Ohio in 1997 and decided to write back, just to figure out how the scam worked and to entertain his co-workers.

“I have never been good with money so you can only imagine how happy I got when I read your email,” he wrote in his first reply. “Do you ever see yourself coming out to Barlow, Oregon (Pop. 125). I was born and raised here so I can show you all the hot spots. With this new money your sending me, I'd love buy a drink at Flash Dancers (a fine eating establishment located just off the interstate). My wife Agnus works there.”

The scammer took the bait, and Sodini drew out the ridiculous story, introducing funny characters and insisting that he and the scammer use code names for security. He went on to conduct dozens of additional baits and posted the results on a Web site. Some readers criticized him, but many others who wrote said that they had fallen victim to the scams and thanked him for derailing the criminals.

“My style was brutal. I didn’t pull any punches,” Sodini said. “I realized it helps people. It quite frankly made them [scammers] change the way they had to do things.”

Sodini gave up baiting several years ago, but he has left his site intact, giving rise to dozens of similar sites and message boards for baiters. Like Sodini, many baiters who begin by writing back just for fun come to see their activity as a real crime-fighting campaign.

Anthony DiSano runs thescambaiter.com, a site with more than 12,000 members. “I try to make it as funny as possible, so [visitors] get interested in doing it themselves,” said DiSano, who owns a computer store in Providence, R.I. “It builds awareness."

DiSano’s scambaiting tactics are more extreme than most. He has set up a fake computer company, Anus Laptops, that attracts scammers with the promise of impossibly cheap laptops. When scammers log on to his site (he also has a fake wire transfer service), he collects their identifying information and when his bogus company makes a “sale” he sends out broken equipment or an old toilet or refrigerator, saddling the victims with thousands of dollars in freight charges--one spent $60,000 on shipping charges in the course of a year.

DiSano has also made contacts at law enforcement agencies around the world. He said that his site members had contributed information leading to dozens of arrests, most recently involving a 419 ring based in Dubai. “It’s evolved into really fighting the crime too, instead of just doing it for fun,” he said.

Not everyone approves of the scambaiters’ tactics. Critics say that their sites are mean-spirited or even racist, ridiculing people in some of the poorest places in the world.

Grant warned that engaging criminals is inherently risky and said that while the baiters might get some satisfaction from their work, they probably don’t have much impact on the scams.

“It’s certainly not going to deter these people from targeting other victims who may be less resilient,” she said. “I’d rather spend time with my friends and family than be trying to harass some crooks.”

E-mail: kjm2121@columbia.edu