CRIME NYTimes.com Article: Turning the Tables on E-Mail Swindlers

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Date: Thu Jun 17 2004 - 15:28:20 PDT

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    Turning the Tables on E-Mail Swindlers
    
    June 17, 2004
     By SETH SCHIESEL 
    
    
    
     
    
    ON the face of it, everyone on the Internet should be rich
    by now. 
    
    After all, you've almost surely received e-mail from at
    least one intriguing stranger in a far-off land offering
    fabulous riches if only you will help recover some lost
    fortune. It might be $25 million spirited away during the
    fall of an obscure African regime. Or $400 million in oil
    lucre seized by one of Saddam Hussein's sons. All you, dear
    friend, need provide is a helping hand (ideally your bank
    account) and a few small fees, and perhaps a quarter of the
    money will be yours. 
    
    Of course, there is no fortune to be had. The only money
    changing hands will be yours, given to one of the thousands
    of so-called advance fee fraud artists haunting the
    Internet. Hailing largely from Nigeria and other West
    African countries, the "419" con artists - so known for a
    section of the Nigerian legal code - have bilked the na´ve
    and the greedy out of hundreds of millions of dollars,
    according to law enforcement estimates. Some victims have
    traveled overseas to meet their supposed business partners,
    only to be robbed or kidnapped. 
    
    As a page at the Web site of the Nigerian Embassy in
    Washington warns, "Don't be fooled! Many have lost money!!
    If it sounds too good to be true, it is not true!!!" 
    
    Now, however, an ad hoc militia of self-styled
    counterscammers on several continents is taking the fight
    directly to the thieves. Aiming to outwit the swindlers,
    they invent elaborate and often outrageous identities
    (Venus de Milo, Lord Vader) under which they engage the con
    men, trying to humiliate them and, more important, waste
    the grifters' time and resources. 
    
    They then chronicle the exploits, documented by elaborate
    e-mail exchanges, at sites like Scamorama
    (www.scamorama.com). They also gather financial and
    technical information about the fraud artists, who are
    sometimes part of broader criminal networks, and refer
    their findings to law enforcement officials. Some of the
    antifraud efforts even appear to straddle the bounds of
    legality: disabling fake bank Web sites used to dupe the
    unwitting, or breaking into swindlers' e-mail accounts to
    warn victims already on the hook. 
    
    Part vigilante patrol, part neighborhood watch, part comedy
    troupe, the counterscammers are trying to beat the thieves
    of the Internet at their own game. And they certainly
    appear to enjoy doing it. 
    
    "There are all these people in America getting robbed
    blind, and what I'm doing is trying to stop it," one of
    them, a 48-year-old computer technician in Melbourne,
    Australia, who conducts some of his exploits under the
    pseudonym Stuart de Baker Hawke, said in a telephone
    interview. "I think of myself as an Internet-security type
    person." The Australian - speaking, like several others
    involved in fraud baiting, on the condition that his real
    name not be published - said that a personal specialty was
    figuring out passwords for Web-based e-mail accounts used
    by con artists. 
    
    But most of those involved seem content with spinning
    fabulous yarns that turn the tables on the perpetrators -
    in rare cases, even to the point of getting swindlers to
    send them money. 
    
    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. 
    
    Mr. Visser estimated that such schemes reap more than $100
    million a year worldwide. Fraud baiters say that most
    victims lose around $3,000, but some far more. 
    
    Arrest and prosecution are difficult because of the
    international nature of the operations. But in January, the
    Dutch national police arrested 52 suspected con men in
    Amsterdam, most of them West African. Internet fraud
    baiters claim to have provided information that helped lead
    to those arrests. 
    
    And with the geography-erasing power of the Internet, it is
    not just major national police forces who are working with
    the fraud baiters. For instance, Karl J. Dailey, the
    sheriff of Dawes County, Neb., has also joined the effort. 
    
    "It went from snail mail to faxes to e-mails," Sheriff
    Dailey said in a telephone interview from his office in
    Chadron, Neb., referring to the initial pitches sent by con
    artists to people in his county. After local residents
    started asking him about the schemes, he said, he got
    involved with the fraud baiters at Artists Against 419
    (www.aa419.org) and even helped take down a fake bank Web
    site. Now, he uses his local radio show to help warn people
    about advance-fee fraud. 
    
    Sheriff Dailey pointed out that the legality of activities
    like cracking into e-mail accounts and shutting down Web
    sites, even patently fraudulent ones, might be dubious at
    best. But he echoed Mr. Visser in lauding the baiters.
    "It's one of these areas that's gray," Sheriff Dailey said,
    "but I think it's serving a very useful purpose because the
    more miserable we can make these knuckleheads, the better.
    I'm all for it. More power to them and I'll do anything I
    can to help them, within the law." 
    
    A few of the fraud baiters appear to be motivated by racism
    (most of the con artists appear to be black Africans,
    operating either in Africa or in Europe). But most are not.
    
    
    "It's not the Nigerian people we're talking about," said
    the Australian operating as Stuart de Baker Hawke. "We
    don't care where the scammers are from or what color they
    are. We care about their activities." 
    
    Fraud baiters and law enforcement officials in several
    countries said that 419 con artists were often associated
    with broader, often violent criminal groups. For that
    reason, they all encourage extreme caution when baiting.
    For instance, never use your real name, they say. Some
    officials discourage the practice altogether. 
    
    "We advise people absolutely not to respond; just ignore
    them,'' said a spokeswoman for the National Criminal
    Intelligence Service in Britain. "The way to deal with
    these scams is not to chase them.'' 
    
    But chase some do. Looking ahead, some fraud baiters said
    they might succeed in substantially eradicating such
    schemes, at least on the Internet. One of those involved in
    fighting the con artists, a 48-year-old winery technician
    in central California, pointed to work on software tools
    called auto-baiters, meant to flood fraud artists with what
    appear to be real leads. "Hopefully someone will take it
    over and do it on an industrial scale," he said. "We want
    the scammers to spend so much time on fake responses that
    they can't figure out which ones are real." 
    
    But others fear that in the battle to protect na´ve
    Internet users from themselves, human nature may not work
    in their favor. 
    
    "What was it that P. T. Barnum said about a sucker every
    minute?" the Australian baiter said. "People have been
    getting scammed forever. Greed endures." 
    
    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/17/technology/circuits/17hoax.html?ex=1088511300&ei=1&en=26c910fd3660922a
    
    
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