Saturday, March 27, 2010

[NEWS] Baiting the cyber-scammers

By Aaron Smith, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- To Internet fraudsters promising vast riches in exchange for advance fees: meet the scambaiters.

These self-described Web vigilantes go after alleged e-mail scammers claiming to be Nigerian princes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Chinese businessmen. They say they need your help (i.e. your money) to access fake multi-million dollar accounts or palaces full of gold.

Most people recognize these e-mails for what they are and delete them without replying, but enough victims actually fall for these scams to keep them coming.

And then there are the scambaiters who answer the e-mails and feign genuine interest in sending money, as a ploy to send the scammers on a wild goose chase.

Mike Sodini, a firearms importer and owner of the Web site, says he started scambaiting in 2001, when he worked at an Internet real estate marketing firm that got inundated with scam e-mails.

Sodini started writing back out of curiosity "to see how the operation would go" and he said it soon became a hit with his co-workers, who would gather around his computer to read his farcical dialogue.

"I started it to make my friends laugh and see what was going on," he says. "I didn't have a motive of, 'Let's get these guys."

In his responses, he would masquerade as characters that were "crazier than the scammers," he says, including a porn star and a racist rube. "There were times when I would pretend I was a Nigerian scammer and I would say, 'Dude, what are doing? I'm one of you."

For further fun, Sodini got alleged scammers to make fools of themselves by posing in photos and holding signs with offensive statements. He says he would get them to do this by claiming it was "for tax purposes," which was a ruse, since he never intended to send them money. He says he'd also convince them to make numerous trips to airports and Western Unions, lured by the promise of money packages that never arrived.
More financial scandals to come?

The name of his site comes from his first scambait, a long-running e-mail dialogue that ended when he finally accused his fraudulent pen-pal of being a scammer and said he wasn't good enough to win the scammer-of-the-year award, which was "a cute Ebola monkey." He has posted this exchange on his Web site.

Sodini says he "retired" from active scambaiting about four years ago, when the fraudsters got savvy to his ploys and started identifying him as "Ebola Monkey Man" within the first couple of e-mails. But he continues to run his site, featuring past dialogue with scammers and photographs of them holding signs, as well as fan mail and hate mail.
Death threats and witch doctors

"Rover," a scambaiter since the 1990s who would not provide his real name, doesn't see his efforts as a joke, but as a mission. In stringing along alleged fraudsters, his goal is "to take their eye off the ball" by luring them away from potential victims, because "they're spending time with us instead of spending time with other people."

Rover owns the scambaiting site, which is a reference to the Nigerian criminal code for fraud. He says many of the fraudulent e-mails originate in Nigeria, but they also come from England, the Netherlands and China. Some scams are ripped from recent headlines, with fraudulent appeals to help earthquake victims of Haiti and Chile.

"[The scammers] will go after anybody that they perceive has the time to give them," he says. "They're obviously just sending out hundreds and hundreds of e-mails."

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