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."