The dangers of the digilantes

A NEW generation of guerilla fighters is stalking the planet. These brutal underground warriors are vastly outnumbered by their enemies but still they battle on, armed only with their wits, their supportive websites and their ability to make Nigerians they’ve never met photograph themselves with “sheep shagger” signs and toilet seats on their heads.

They are the scam-baiters and their ruthless modus operandi reveals how easily the good fight can become an ugly one.

If you use email, chances are you’ve received one or two squillion poorly punctuated offers of abandoned fortunes that can be provided AT NO RISKS TO YOU TRUSTED GENTLEMANLADY WHATSOEVERS. All you have to do is send a substantial advance fee to a suspicious bank account and voila, Bob (well, actually Prince Fayad Bolkiah, eldest son of the former finance minister of Brunei) is your uncle.

If you think no one would be silly enough to be sucked in by such shamfulness, you are sadly mistaken. In 2006, it was estimated that this sort of hustle was costing the British economy pound stg. 150 million a year. According to the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, unwitting victims have even been kidnapped and murdered.

Enter the digilante.

Beginner or “straight baiters” usually just waste scammers’ time by engaging in long and surreal correspondences in which money is promised but never materialises.

One baiter featured on the website chats at length with 22-year-old Queen Amina from the Congo who, as is so often the case these days, is at a complete loss about what to do with her $US10.5 million inheritance. Using the nom de scam Lady Fapina Tyuksar (apparently this almost means something rude in Hungarian), the scam-baiter eventually directs Amina’s “barrister” to her receptionist, Donna Nytrocks, whose number is actually an S&M phone sex hotline.

The correspondence survives this outrageous development but tails off shortly after Lady Tyuksar sends a photo of herself that bears an uncanny resemblance to Lwaxana Troi, Daughter of the Fifth House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx and Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed from Star Trek.

Straight-baiters rarely get any nastier than childish sneering in their final “ha ha, I tricked you” message. But elite practitioners (or master baiters, as they like to call themselves) treat scam-baiting as an out and out blood sport.

They boast of “safaris” (trips they’ve tricked scammers into making to remote banks to collect nonexistent advance fees) and “trophies” (photos scammers take of themselves doing stupid things or holding obscene signs in desperate attempts to prove their credentials).

English computer engineer Mike Berry, the founder of, is the dark prince of baiting. He has duped scammers into writing out Harry Potter books by hand, carving computers from wood and falling in love with him pretending to be Gillian Anderson from The X Files. Apparently he and his geeky cohorts have also succeeded in getting more than 50 scammers arrested.

The trophy room for contributors to Berry’s site includes photos of scammers in suggestive poses and bearing signs with slogans such as “I love cocky sucky”. Most of the subjects are black, grim-looking and situated in dusty village tableaus that are a far cry from the spectacular fortunes discussed in their emails. One woman seems to be missing an eye.

This, of course, is where scam-baiting starts to look crass, cold-blooded and possibly even homophobic and racist.

“The scam-baiters seem almost like a spontaneous evolutionary response to a threatening predatory species … the T cells of the internet’s immune system,” Ron Rosenbaum writes in The Atlantic. But “what started out as a good-natured form of rough justice has become, in some respects, a theatre of cruelty”.
It’s an intriguing, quintessentially 21st-century ethical dilemma that brings to mind far more serious war-related debates about ends, means and justifications.

Perhaps, like non-cyber soldiers, spam-baiters should agree to treat their PoWs more humanely.

Persuading Prince Joe Eboh of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to convert to the Order of the Red Breast and paint a red No9 over his nipple is one thing. But conning what looks like an entire village into posing with “arse bandit” signs seems to be taking things an Abu Ghraib too far.

- originally published in The Australian on 13-11-2008.

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