I was in the Paris Charles de Gaulle International Airport, getting ready to board a flight to Lome, Togo, when my heart stopped beating.
Or maybe it didn't stop entirely. It certainly sputtered. I've been told I collapsed at the Air France boarding gate. The suitcase I was carrying, crammed with tailored American suits in navy and gray, a half-dozen cell phones, and two laptop computers, all gifts for my friend Dr. Johnson Boko — that suitcase was lost in the ensuing chaos. Other than a gripping, iron fist of pain, I don't remember much. I suppose I passed out. Medics arrived. A couple of days later, I woke up in intensive care in the Paris Sisters of the Sacred Heart hospital.
But I remember the chain of events that led to the moment I fell. The pressure and excitement had stressed my heart to failure.
You see, I was on my way to finalize a financial deal that would net me $4.5 million in cash, tax-free.
Well, not exactly...
In fact, I was scam-baiting, screwing with internet thieves. It's a hobby that involves responding to those pesky emails that fill up your inbox and spam folder promising easy money: the rich Nigerian widows dying of cancer, the dethroned royalty with gold stashed in hidden bank accounts. The goal is to waste scammers' time and keep them away from real victims. To pull off my first scam-bait, I had created a fictional 40-something professor named Paul Bunyon. He had the heart attack. Me, I had nothing worse to report than a cricked neck from too many hours perusing the online forums at 419Eater.com, the largest scam-baiting website in the world.
The man who runs 419Eater.com lives in northern Broward County. He asked that we not use his real name, but his alias online is "Rover," and as site administrator, he occasionally takes on the canine characteristics of a fierce online watchdog. The main purpose of 419Eater, which is named for the 419 section of the Nigerian criminal code, is simple: to raise awareness of internet fraud. And if raising awareness sounds dull, consider that the site's 20,000-plus members are having more fun than a barrelful of African barristers.
Internet fraud is a thriving, global business with sometimes heartbreaking repercussions. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, Americans lost $264.6 million last year to internet scammers. The bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center fielded almost 300,000 complaints, up 33 percent from the year before.
"I have seen estimates of annual losses to 419 fraud of between $300 million and $1 billion [U.S.]," 419Eater member Wright B. Hindyu says. "Plucking an average figure of $2,000 per scammer per year would suggest between 150,000 and 500,000 scammers. It's hard to be more accurate, since so many victims don't report losses due to shame and fear of humiliation."
Scammers operate in Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines — just about anywhere where there are enough internet cafés to keep them in business. This year, 419Eaters working as a group cornered a scammer in Canada and managed to have him arrested by the Canadian Mounted Police, Rover says. But despite the efforts of 419Eater and its sister site, Scamwarners.com, which was set up to counsel and console victims of internet fraud, a steady supply of new marks feeds the monster.
On May 26, 2009, I started my first scam-bait. Rover set me up with a mentor, a guy who went by the alias Knasig Ostrich, to teach me how to fritter away the time and resources of criminals who run internet scams. Ostrich was a stern young European who told me he was a history major at a university. He had a part-time job working with guide dogs.
My first step, Ostrich advised me, was to set up a "catcher account" to attract scam letters. When the emails started piling in, we selected a promising one: a letter purporting to be from Dr. Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast. He was looking for a partner to help him transfer $18.5 million out of a Spanish bank. For my trouble, I would receive a commission of $4.5 million. My scammer wrote:
I seek your indulgence to solicit for your assistance concerning the content of my mail. I need some one that could be trust worthy to provid his account for this transaction.
Scammers follow a formula. They ask for your name, address, phone, bank account number, and a scan of your passport — mostly to see how easy a mark you are. Their plan is to get you to send an "advance fee" through Western Union or bank-to-bank transfer. The money you send, they explain, will pay lawyers and miscellaneous "transaction" fees.
In best-case stories, a gullible dupe loses a few hundred bucks and feels foolish. In worst-case scenarios, victims have been kidnapped, tortured, held for ransom, and murdered. Several have committed suicide. "You see it all," Rover says. "A little old lady who has lost $100,000. We get stories every single day about losses that range from $1,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, people who have sold everything in hope of getting vast sums of money."
Does Rover think increased awareness is curbing internet fraud? Or is there a sucker born every minute?
"I'd go with the latter," he says matter-of-factly.
My scammer had emailed me his picture and his government web address (for the real President Alassane) to impress me. One photo showed a handsome man, suit jacket thrown insouciantly over his shoulder, offering a warm, open smile. The first few letters scammers send out, aimed at thousands of recipients, are prewritten form letters. We wanted to get our scammer composing his own emails. That way, he'd have to think and write on his own.
Keeping your real identity secret is crucial, because scammers could come after baiters. Even Rover won't say much about his real identity. He reveals only that he's a 43-year-old transplanted South African who obtained his U.S. citizenship last year. He holds a PhD in computer science and cryptography; his day job is with a local software development company. In his spare time, Rover works as one of two head administrators of 419Eater.com (the other, Lotta, lives on the West Coast). They took over after the founder of the site, a British man who uses the alias Mike Berry, retired two years ago.
With Ostrich's help, I opened a Skype account to send and receive phone calls — $18 for three months, my only expense. I created two characters, Professor Paul Bunyon, an ichthyologist at Orange County University, and his secretary, Jenny Schecter, a greedy, conniving 29-year-old. I set up two Gmail accounts in Bunyon's and Jenny's names — we chose Gmail because it masks IP addresses, so recipients can't tell where you're from. I created fake addresses and other identifying details. I found a web photo of the fictitious Jenny Schecter (the name comes from a character from the Showtime series The L-Word). And for my ichthyologist, I found a hypercreepy shot of a Paul Bunyan statue dressed in lumberjack attire, just lifelike enough to pass. I invented a fake checking account, with P.I.G.G.Y. Bank and Loan.
I'd also need killer instincts and a sense of humor, Ostrich indicated. 419Eater members put internet fraudsters through the wringer. They get fake bank and shopping sites shut down. They lead scammers into the arms of authorities. They collect forged checks. They send the scammers on transcontinental "safaris," trips of hundreds or thousands of miles that often end with the scammer stranded, penniless, or in jail. They persuade their marks to tattoo themselves, to dress in tutus, to photograph their private parts, to send lengthy handwritten letters. They compel scammers to write poems. Paint pictures. Stage musicals and then mail the performance videos to their baiters.
Ostrich suggested I offer my scammer a "banana," defined as "anything that makes [him] feel good, self-important, and in control again, when he is in fact not." So Professor Bunyon told Alassane he was prepared to wire an initial payment via Western Union. But since he was leaving for a conference in Tennessee, he was putting the job in the capable hands of his secretary, Jenny Schecter.
With Professor Bunyon incommunicado in the hills of Tennessee, his cell phone nonfunctional, on May 29, Jenny wrote to Alassane:
Dr. Bunyon has asked me to assist in getting you the information you need, and I am sending it forthwith. Please don't hesitate to call me if you need further assistance.
Alassane called Jenny on my Skype line the next day, where I'd left an interminable voice-mail message to waste his time and money. When I called him back, we had a decidedly one-way conversation; I doubt if my scammer paused for a breath. Alassane was bossy, long-winded, condescending, puffed up with his own superiority. The Nigerian scammer slang for a victim is "maga," or "dimwit." They really do think we're big idiots.
Afterward, I sent the recorded call to my mentor. "His simple arrogance," Ostrich wrote me after he'd listened, "was so thick that I swear I could have cut it with a knife, formed it into a block, and shoved that block down his throat."
On May 31, I got another email from Alassane. This time, he was off-script, botching even the spelling of his own name.
i have not been able to answer you since yesterday because i made an improptu visist to the ministry of foreign affairs down here and i am happy to inform you that i have done everything to make sure that this transfer is very legal and without delay. do not worry at all my dear, many people have done this down here and become very rich without any worry, so this is our opportunity. Yours sincerely Dr Alassan
Ostrich advised me not to correct my scammer's constant misspellings. Better to let him make the same mistakes with real victims and possibly tip them off.
Most likely, I had been passed up the chain of command. A lot of scammers operate as gangs. When a victim responds to a scripted mass email, he or she gets passed up to the big boss, or "Oga," who responds in the character of a lawyer, banker, diplomat, or VIP.
Alassane had sent me an email explaining that an associate, Dr. Johnson Boko, would handle the details of our transaction. On June 2, I received a hilariously botched scan of a "bank draft" from Boko — one of many pathetically forged official documents I'd receive — along with the demand that I immediately wire 850 euro via Western Union to a Robert Folli.
Jenny ignored the request for money and instead sent Alassane a letter full of tangents and inanities.
By the way, what IS your native language? Do you speak French in Cote d'Ivoire? I wish you would tell me a bit about yourself, are you married? Do you have children? What is life like in Cote d'Ivoire? I am thinking about what I shall do when I receive my percentage of the money, and I think I would like to travel around the world. Perhaps I could come visit you. Please write back and tell me a little bit about yourself and more about Africa, as I find it fascinating.
She also complained about her boss:
He is a man who would lose his own head if it weren't screwed on so tight. I'll be happy to leave this place and never look back.
Alassane sent me this terse note the next day.
Please. I am a man of my words and I do not need so much questions OK? Yes, Dr Bunyon may be a little over carried in mentality, so is every man some times. I am not an African historian i am sorry that i can not do that. i am a man of high status here and i have my area to cover my dear woman.
And on June 3, I got this imperious letter:
I have no time for stories. are you sending the money tomorrow or not? If you do not send it tomorrow then i may think twice about your personality and genuine interest to help. If you send the money to them please send the western union payment information to me.
In return, I fired off another confused email. Why had they asked for euro, not dollars? Who was Robert Folli? Why couldn't I just mail them a check?
Boko was fed up too: "Listen Madam," he wrote. "I have a wife and she is a woman like you. I cannot mingle in such a stressful and aurgument process."
On 419Eater, writing a harsh retort to a scammer is called a "slap." Ostrich wasn't a big fan of slapping — he preferred subtlety and guile. But we agreed our scammers were thoroughly hooked. We decided it was safe to administer a brisk flick of the whip:
My good Doctor Assanine,You treat me like I am a simpleton, probably because I am female. But rest assured, I am a girl of good breeding and education. I am no idiot redneck white trash. Do not mistake my Deep Southern brand of friendliness and charm for innocent stupidity, my friend, because you will have another thing coming! You want me to send the money by Western Union! Puleeeeze. I doubt if we even have a Western Union within 50 miles of my house.
Dr. Johnson Boko attempted to soothe Jenny's ruffled feathers: "I think we are over stressing this little issue," he wrote. "Drive to the Western Union Office. Tell them you are sending it to a good friend. We find out that some officers in Western Union plot to see if they can come in between the project."
Indeed, there are warnings all over Western Union's website about internet scams. A bit later, I would turn Boko's advice against him.
The irrepressible Jenny wouldn't be put off so easily. She nattered on, her daily emails full of misunderstandings, diversions, requests for clarification. You'd think she had all the time in the world. On June 6, Jenny wrote President Alassane about "our new American President," hoping her idiocy would incite an enraged response.
I don't know if you follow our United States elections, but we have our first black president ever. Actually, we say that he is "African American," which means at some point his people came from your country, a long time ago. His wife is very pretty too, and quite a fashion plate! There has been a lot of talk here about the clothes she wears, like was that skirt too short, or was that jacket too flashy, that kind of thing. Maybe you can tell me a bit about what your job is. Are you kind of like a King? Or more like a Functionary? Do you wear a special uniform?
Ostrich approved. "I'd love to see [his] face when he reads that part about African ancestors coming to America," he said. Some scammers justify their work as revenge for slavery, Ostrich explained. "That could provoke a reaction. I'm quite sure he will have a funny expression on his face when he reads that."
Looking at 419Eater's site, it's hard to avoid the race issue. Most of the scammers are black. In the site's "trophy room," baiters have posted hundreds of photos of scammers in embarrassing poses. They hold signs that read "I'm a TWAT" or "I love PHALLUS." They kneel as a bottle of milk is poured over their heads. Wearing ridiculous kilts, they hold a dead fish in each hand. A tour of these trophies can make the skin crawl.
"Our baiters come from all walks of life, many countries, many races, both genders," Rover tells me. But you deal with what you're given, and these scammers have approached us. If you happen to be black, if you happen to be white, Asian, it really doesn't matter, the answer is: 'We will bait you no matter who you are.' "
Two weeks after the first contact with our scammers, on June 9, Jenny finally took off for the hour's drive to the nearest fictional Western Union office in Dade City. She had $1,200 to wire to Dr. Boko. Then, for three days, there was no word from her. Her silence was punctuated by increasingly shrill emails from Dr. Boko.
President Alassane heard news from Jenny three days later. As she was driving to Western Union, her car had been blindsided by a chicken truck. Forced by police to go to the hospital, she'd been held there under suspicion of a concussion. She explained what happened in an email on June 12.
Mr. Assaline, the last two days were a nightmare. I had to spend $635 in cash to pay for my hospital stay because I let my health insurance lapse, and they are going to bill me for a lot more. I only had $500 left over, so I put the cost of the car repairs on my credit card — the repairs came to nearly $1,400 to fix the passenger side door and replace the broken window and windshield.
Still, she drives to Western Union, planning to wire her last $500 to Boko.
I can barely even write this email because I am still crying so hard. The people at the Western Union office were HORRIBLE. Even though I was totally stressed and upset they wanted to argue with me. They did not believe I was sending money to a friend. They were convinced that I was the victim of a spam letter and they absolutely refused to continue the transaction. I was so angry I lost my temper and started screaming at them, and then these idiots threatened to call the police on me.
Jenny begged for a few more days. Boko and Alassane importuned her to quickly wire the $500 from the nearest Moneygram office. And then, there was another week of dead silence from Jenny.
I'd been baiting my scammers for almost a month, and one of my goals was critical psychological meltdown. There are lots of ways to induce craziness. Technically savvy baiters have devised sadistic tools — some requiring the keying in of long strings of code — to waste scammers' time and drive them to distraction. They have created multipage "security" and "antifraud" forms and convinced scammers to fill in painstaking answers to ridiculous questions ("If you were driving a truck filled with lifted goats, how many would you keep for your efforts?"). But Ostrich was a purist. He wanted to teach me classic straight-baiting that relied on nothing fancier than my own deviousness. The method appeared to be paying off.
By his June 17 email, Dr. Boko was babbling about government overthrow, voodoo, prison, and certain death. He had taken to writing in caps.
LISTEN TO ME NOW IF I LOOSE THAT MONEY I WILL GO TO PRISON AND YOU WILL NEVER BE FREE. PLEASE I AM IN DENGER AS I AM WRITTEN TO YOU. MY REPRESENTATIVE IS ANGRY AND HE IS A HUGE OCCULT MAN HERE I DO NOT WANT TO DIE.
Confusion, anger, fear. Boko was running the gamut of emotions. "Bad spirits" had gotten involved in our transaction.
NOW THAT GOD WANT TO BLESS YOU AND ME BAD SPIRITS ARE BLOCKING YOU. I DO NOT WANT THEM TO INVESTGATE US PLEASE PLEASE FOR GOD'S SAKE.
And more bad news was on the way.
It was time to resurrect Dr. Bunyon, the mature voice of reason and an antidote to Jenny's terminal haplessness. Bunyon returned from Tennessee and sent Boko and Alassane a furious email on June 19. Having discovered that Jenny was out to cheat him out of $4.5 million, he'd fired her. But Bunyon still wanted to deal:
Know that you are dealing with myself, Dr. Paul Bunyon, and not some airheaded little twit of a girl. You have tricked me once, and gone behind my back with my secretary, and I plan to be very cautious with you.
Alassane replied the same day with the subject line, "Sorry for what Jenny did." Now even the U.S. White House was involved.
You know what? the white house have approved the money. your secratary told me that you gave her the power to go on. so i did not trick you never. well sorry for her action. i am not happy that jenny was not honest however you can still control the situation by sending to the fee. if the fee is not received via western union today or tomorrow then by monday i am getting another person to deal with.
If Dr. Bunyon doesn't wire the money immediately, Dr. Boko says in a follow-up email on June 23, they will all be charged with "financial irregularities."
Due to your delays we have received a letter from the White House that if after three days you did not complete this transfer the transfer will be stopped and your personality and information investigated.
My personality investigated! By June 24, Dr. Bunyon had formulated an alternate idea. He had a conference to attend in Kenya next month. He'd simply stop over in Lome, Togo, and meet Dr. Boko in person to finalize the deal. This was the American way of transacting business, he insisted.
"Your excuses are becoming out of order sir," Boko replied the same day. But after some initial reluctance, my scammers agreed to the plan.
My mentor, Ostrich, "graduated" me a bit early with his blessing, because in real life, he was moving to take a new job. But other scam-baiters were glad to step in. On the 419Eater forum, members walked me through the intricacies of my flight to Lome. I sent copies of a fake ticket, my silly photo of Bunyon, and my flight number and arrival time. I came up with endless excuses about my passport and visa (I'd had to rush-order a new one; it arrived at the last minute). I sent Boko absurd letters, asking what size suit he wore so I could pack some from my American tailor, along with other gifts like computers and phones. I corralled a friend at work to field a phone call in the character of Dr. Bunyon, so details about my arrival could be discussed. Boko suddenly wanted me to wire a $2,980 advance to a lawyer in Ghana. But I was nearly out of cash, so I told him I had to liquidate some stock. It all required delays.
Boko and Alassane were thrilled. They smelled blood.
Knowing my interest in African culture, Boko wrote on July 3, he had hired a historian to show me around Lome. He had decided he wanted to spend his golden years in Florida. He warned me not to trust anyone but himself and Alassane.
i have received your picture and i am highly impressed that i am dealing with a reputable and an honourary gentlemen and with you i have the whole hope of coming to stay in miami for my retirment. Every arrangment will be made to welcome you as a big customer down here and you will be very happy after the whole transaction. Now about the suit good black or blue or any good colour will be good. i asked the director general about the phone he told me that he will want lap top so anyone that is within your capacity is good. the digital cameras are also good. listen to me very well. you have to know that this business is very confidential ok.
Professor Paul Bunyon never arrived in Togo. Dr. Johnson Boko, a stranger who had become Bunyon's trusted friend, waited in vain the night of July 9 at the Lome airport. Bunyon and Boko were supposed to finish the legal paperwork and toast their partnership over dinner. And Bunyon was supposed to be a very rich man.
On July 14, Dr. Bunyon's new secretary, Carmella Sabatini, wrote to Boko and Alassane to explain what had happened at the Paris airport. Her new boss had suffered a heart attack as he was getting ready to board the flight to Lome. Only minutes before, he'd wired the $2,980 from Western Union and sent Boko the receipt to prove it. Dr. Bunyon, she wrote,
...has not been lucid yet, so I have no further instructions from him about the business matter you were engaged in. The good news is that he is expected to recover, but his progress may be slow.
Boko replied that the fake Western Union receipt I had created was missing one digit of the crucial MTCN number he needed to retrieve the funds.
I DR JOHNSON BOKO WILL NEITHER SPEAK WTH YOU NOR MR BUNYON NOE ANY BODY UNTIL I SEE THE ATTACHMENT COPY OF THE WESTEN UNION NOR THE CONTROL NUMBER.
Carmella offered to help straighten things out, but Boko and Alassane seemed to have lost their passion for the deal. Still, Alassane sent Bunyon more letters, continually capitalized. He never wanted to hear from Bunyon again: "YOU WANT TO EAT MY MONEY!"
Boko complained he was in danger of losing his job: "PLEASE I HAVE A WIFE AND THREE KIDS TO FEED."
And Jenny Schecter resurfaced at the end of July. "Hello Dr. Alassane, remember me? Your old 'friend' Jenny Schecter?" Jenny demanded to know when they were going to wire the $4.5 million into her P.I.G.G.Y. bank account.
THE PROBLEM HERE IS I CANT SEEM TO TRUST BOTH YOU AND YOUR SO CALLED BOSS BUNYON. THIS IS PUTTING MY ASS ON FIRE, AND I WOULD NOT REALLY LIKE THAT.
Clearly I'd been passed back down the rungs again. My Oga/big man was fed up with me. We carried on a desultory correspondence for another couple of months, but the low-level scammer who sent me an email on September 27 could barely speak English.
if you ready to do this business send the money to them now okay. you are play with my money.
Only the most dedicated scam-baiters hang on to a bait once it gets boring. Sometimes, being passed down the ladder means it's time to find a new target.
It takes dedication to keep up the 419Eater site too, Rover says. The budget is minuscule: They sell a little advertising to help pay the technical costs, and some scam-baiters buy "premium" memberships for $25 a year. Rover says he spends two to three hours at night working on the site. "We're all just regular people trying to make a difference to the community around us," he says. "You do it in whatever way you can. It all sounds very 007-ish, but it's really not."
So he's a do-gooder without a trace of sentiment? "I have no compassion whatsoever," he adds. "When I find out somebody's been scammed, I'm like, 'Wow, it sucks to be you.' "
The last email from Lome, Togo, came early last month, and it was clear my scammers were sick of dealing with me. But not sick enough to miss one last demand for the funds.
October 6, 2009
From: Alassane Out
To: Jenny Schecter
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Subject: forlongtime jenny and paul play with my money.
was it a joke jenny and paul tell me now or you send the money. send the money now. if you can not do that you forget about this business okay. buybuyjenny.
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