Listen To These Vigilantes Scam Nigerian 419 Scammers

Last week, “This American Life” featured a 30-minute piece on people who scam the scammers—in this case, three guys who prey upon small-time Nigerian con men and try to trick them into placing themselves in mortal danger. “This American Life” tells how they almost got a guy to enter a Western Union office in Chad carrying an anti-Muslim/pro-Bush note that announces his intention to rob the place. Whether you think these stunts are funny probably depends on your level of empathy even for criminals, and whether you think the avengers ever fully succeed. But c’mon, getting someone in another country to hold up a sign that’s offensive in your language is pretty much always funny.

Check out a 30-second promo of the episode here (mp3 file).

“Enforcers” [This American Life] (Thanks to Shannon!)
(Bear trap image: Getty)

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  1. BrianDaBrain says:

    Count me among the folks that has little (if any) empathy for the criminals. This is funny.

  2. mythago says:

    Count me among the folks who have little (if any) empathy for people who get their jollies hurting others, but are careful to pick on ‘deserving’ others so they can pretend they’re doing a public service.

    But hey, I’m one of those crazies who doesn’t believe property crimes merit the death penalty.

    • strathmeyer says:

      @mythago: “But hey, I’m one of those crazies who doesn’t believe property crimes merit the death penalty.”

      So I guess you haven’t heard about them kidnapping people and holding them for ransom? Because people who steal from others would never do anything like that…

      • mythago says:

        @strathmeyer: Sorry, you’re not even making sense. You’re saying that small-time con men are lawbreakers, and kidnappers are lawbreakers, therefore we should assume Nigerian scammers are kidnappers? Or what?

        Spoofing con men into doing something stupid, or wasting their time (the “Randolph Carter” counterscam is a classic) is almost as good as actually getting them in trouble with the law. But putting them into life-threatening situations? No.

        • Dennis says:

          @mythago: “putting them into life-threatening situations? No.”

          Agreed.

        • little stripes says:

          @mythago: “Spoofing con men into doing something stupid, or wasting their time (the “Randolph Carter” counterscam is a classic) is almost as good as actually getting them in trouble with the law. But putting them into life-threatening situations? No. “

          Basically, this.

          Also, having them hand a note to the teller saying they are robbing the place puts EVERYONE in danger, not just the conned con-man. That is taking it way, way too far.

          Want to do something humuours that doesn’t harm anyone but makes the con-men look like fools? Awesome, go for it, I will laugh along with it. But as soon as you start putting people in danger (including the con-man and anyone else around), you’ve crossed a line and are now worse than the con-men you are trying to con.

        • briancavner says:

          @mythago & little stripes:

          I agree that death or serious injury is far too great a penalty for mere property crimes, and I do share a light feeling of sympathy as a result, but I still can’t get over that the criminals are willingly doing these things purely out of greed. No one is forcing them to walk into a dangerous situation. That they’re willing to do something so clearly hazardous simply because some anonymous person over the Internet asked them to points to some serious deficiency on their end.

          “I’ll give you money if you threaten to rob a bank”. What? How could someone of sound mind — desperate scammer or not — actually believe that?

        • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

          @mythago: These are not small time con-men. They are well organized, ambitious criminals who have killed before. 419 Eater is an excellent resource to see just how ruthless these people are.

          I have to say, though, that the idea of sending a scammer into a WU office with a note stating his intention to rob the place is not something a responsible Scambaiter would do, nor do I condone it. One of the cardinal rules of scambaiting is to do nothing that would cause harm to an innocent third party. A fake robbery attempt might certainly do just that.

          Sending a scammer into a WU where he might face arrest? Certainly, and it’s been done before. Sending him in with a note saying he’s going to rob the place? Irresponsible at best; dangerous at worst.

        • humphrmi says:

          @mythago:

          Sorry, you’re not even making sense. You’re saying that small-time con men are lawbreakers, and kidnappers are lawbreakers, therefore we should assume Nigerian scammers are kidnappers? Or what?

          We don’t have to assume Nigerian scammers are kidnappers. We know this for a fact.

          [www.google.com]

        • Shadowman615 says:

          @mythago: 419 Scammers have tricked their victims into traveling to Africa where they have been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. This is not an assumption, it has actually happened.

    • Dennis says:

      @mythago: Your are correct, two wrongs don’t make a right — however, it seems quite different to dupe someone into transcribing Harry Potter by hand and taking someone’s life savings.

      As for the death penalty, while I agree with it in principle, I would rather see no one put to death than see even one innocent individual sentenced to death.

  3. esd2020 says:

    Sorry, I can’t help but feel a little bad for the criminals. Though I feel a lot worse for the people they trick out of their life savings.

  4. dadelus says:

    Considering my wifes ebay and email accounts got hacked by one of these scumbags last week and we have to now deal with the fallout I have no sympathy.

    Although it did teach her a valuable lesson about using the same username/password for every account.

  5. tptcat says:

    Best. ScamBait. Ever.

    [419eater.com]
    (go to the 2nd page to see the end result or just go here):

  6. Canino says:

    A new corollary to “you can’t cheat an honest man”…you can’t get an honest man to announce his intention to rob a Western Union office.

    Just think how much better shape these people’s lives would be in if they would spend their time and energy trying to improve their situation honestly instead of trying to cheat others.

  7. Jabronimus says:

    I gotta admit: no sympathy. Hilarious.

  8. I don’t have any empathy for them. But some of the scammers are smarter than they pretend to be, so one should use some caution. The thrilling conclusion of the great P-P-P-Powerbook auction should be enough to give the would-be vigilante some pause:

    Finally, and most disturbingly, Jeff [the vigilante] was not heard from again. I personally e-mailed him for permission to run his story on ZUG, but after an initial response, I never heard from him again. All of his Web sites have come down, and he is nowhere to be found.

  9. chustar says:

    Do we really need to call them Nigerians EVERY SINGLE TIME? I thought there were people in other parts of the world that do this.
    I’m Nigerian, and all I’m asking for is a little disclaimer: “While 419 scamming was popularised in Nigeria (and even draws its name from the country’s crimial code for fraud) it is not to be assumed that all Nigerians are scammers or that all scammers are Nigerian.” I would rather not have the stereotype applied to me anymore.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      @chustar: You know, I see where you’re coming from because not every Chinese restaurant is owned by Chinese people who say “fly lice” for fried rice and who put cats on their menu in the guise of beef. And not every black person is a criminal and poor. And not every white person from the South is white trash and racist.

      It’s just unfortunate that these stereotypes are applied, and I’m sure the majority of people understand that it’s not ALL Nigerians who are perpetuating these scams. Certainly I’ve seen scammers claim they are from other countries.

    • @chustar: FWIW, I dated a Nigerian once, and he wasn’t a con man. He was an anesthesiologist.

      But yeah, we need a new catch-all term for these guys that doesn’t link them to one country.

      • goodywitch says:

        “But c’mon, getting someone in another country to hold up a sign that’s offensive in your language is pretty much always funny.” –No, never funny.

        “But c’mon, getting criminals in another country to hold up a sign that’s offensive in your language is pretty much always funny.” –That’s Funny.

        The punishment should fit the crime.

        Cheat people who want quick money fast out of their life savings < mortal danger. Not funny.

        Cheating criminals of their time/money/humiliate them (w/o danger), that’s funny. (I’m thinking of that guy w/ the laptop scam, can’t remember the site right now.)

        @Chris Walters: Off the top of my head, “off-shore/foreign internet scammers” seems pretty seedy and non-country specific, but it’s not crime specific. I’m sure others will come up with way better suggestions.

      • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

        @Chris Walters: You could call them “mugus.” That’s what baiters call the scammers, regardless of national origins. Incidentally, “mugu” is also the word used by the scammers to refer to their victims.

        419 scammer works as well.

    • Personally I would like to invite the scammers to bring me some diamonds or drugs, but alas just inviting them to bring me such stuff could result in criminal charges being filed against me.

    • @chustar:

      Today’s scam fax was from “South Africa”.

  10. hallam says:

    As the author of the dotCrime Manifesto: How to Stop Internet Crime:

    Please don’t do this stuff. You are probably actually helping one group of criminals make money out of another set of more gullible criminals.

    The heart of the advance fee fraud is that you find someone who is somewhat criminally inclined and you set up a sure fire proposition that they think will make them a lot of money. Then you get them to advance you some money up front.

    That is what the 419 letters were about five years ago.

    Today the scam is so well known that the response rates are much much lower and it is much harder for the criminals to make a buck that way.

    So instead they have been frachising the fraud selling ‘419 scam kits’ to gullible would-be fraudsters.

    When someone responds to one of these messages they are yanking the chain of the would be fraudster (good) but they are also helping the 419 gang make money which is very bad.

    If you take a look at the archives of the scambaiter forums you will find that many of the ‘barristers’ are sitting in front of the same set.

    The reason they are prepared to do these stupid things is because they have been told to expect them by the criminals looking to exploit them.

    • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

      @hallam: “The heart of the advance fee fraud is that you find someone who is somewhat criminally inclined and you set up a sure fire proposition that they think will make them a lot of money. Then you get them to advance you some money up front.”

      Absolutely not. There are MANY versions of the 419 opening letter out there, and only a few rely on complicity of the victim in a perceived illegal act. There are variants that play on victims sympathies, charitable natures, and general goodwill as well. Scammers will lead victims to believe they are helping orphans, donating to ministries overseas, or are helping someone dodge unscrupulous relatives who would steal an inheritance that is not rightfully theirs.

      Please don’t blame the victims here. While there is a percentage that may have an inkling that what they are doing is underhanded (and one of the techniques that scammers use to keep the victim from going to the authorities), there are also many victims who thought they were helping someone.

  11. RedSonSuperDave says:

    Mark me down in the “no sympathy” crowd. Getting one of these scumbags to walk into a Western Union office is not particularly responsible, but it’s pretty damn funny. I can just imagine his attempts to explain himself to the cops.

    “No, I’m not trying to ROB the place, I’m just doing this to win the trust of some mark I’m trying to scam via the Internet. Really, I promise!”

  12. I don’t really have any sort of sympathy for the scammers. I feel really bad for the people who have been scammed, and that’s because I feel that some of these people were scammed because of me. See, I used to be a relay operator and had to place so many phony calls from scammers and couldn’t do a damn thing to stop them. I couldn’t terminate the call until certain criteria were met, I couldn’t try to tip off the scammee in any way, I just had to read what was typed and type what said. It was so infuriating when someone actually fell for this stuff. There was a point when the call could be terminated by a supervisor, but I think the scammers had been going through IP Relay so much that they knew what kind of dialog/phrases/actions would call for a supervisor to terminate the call. Anger! But at least that job made me much more aware of this stuff and now I can spot a scam from a light year away.

    • @brendahamLincoln:

      Thank you for confirming what I thought. Over the years I have received two calls placed through relay operators that were most definitly very scammy. They never got to the point of $, because we cut off the telephone calls. I felt bad at the time for shutting down the call, but now I know I was right.

  13. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    I started to have a twinge of sympathy when one of the guys told the scammer that his mother had died, but when the scammer got home, he was back at it again, trying to convince somebody else to send him $10,000 instead of paying for their child’s medical bills.

    The end result was that I hope these scammers rot in some kind of scam hell. :)

    • Blitzgal says:

      @Grrrrrrrrr: I also lost my sympathy when I heard the end of the piece and found out this guy is still active. But Ira Glass made a very good point (as did another poster upthread). The people who fall for these scams think they are getting hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for just a little bit of cash upfront. So yes, they do have to be a little bit criminally minded themselves.

      It’s interesting seeing how many of these “scam victims” are ending up on Judge Judy and other tv court shows because they turn around and use a family member or friend’s bank account to front the money and the family member is the one who ends up victimized and has to sue to recoup their losses. And these defendants who’ve abused their own family members in their attempts to get millions are so invested in believing that this couldn’t possibly have been a scam that nothing the judge says will convince them otherwise.

      Count me as overly cynical because I don’t have much sympathy for anyone involved in this; they’re all trying to game the system.

  14. adam_w says:

    I heard a bit of this TAL episode. And taking advantage of someone’s greed is what scammers do. These “419 Busters” who have the “scammer” go on dangerous errands are simply running a counter con. They’re little better.

    Having said that, if all they do is have them take a photo holding a sign that says “Bon Jovi WOOO” or something like that is pretty funny.

  15. sprocket79 says:

    This article is a good read: [www.newyorker.com]

    It’s the story of this 62 year old guy who fell for once of those scams and was eventually sent to jail. The guy just lost all touch with reality by the end. He honestly believed their stories. He didn’t learn a damn thing. This is an exchange with his wife in front of the interviewer after he was convicted, right before reporting to prison:

    “What if they sent you a check?” Barbara demanded. “Would you put it in the bank to see if it cleared again?”

    “Yeah.”

    “John!” she said.

    “I don’t know,” Worley said finally, sounding defeated. “I have to have time to think about what I would do in that situation.”

  16. Quilt says:

    I’ve GOT to see this.

  17. DoktorGoku says:

    Also, to those who have listened to the broadcast, the guy who was “sent into danger”, upon safely returning to Nigeria, kept trying to scam others- even trying to convince somebody to GIVE HIM $10K, INSTEAD OF A ‘DYING GIRL’.

    Yeah, I have no sympathy here.

  18. ohenry says:

    I’m also in the S.S. No Sympathy here.

    There’s scammers falling for a scam, and then there’s scammers willing to put themselves in a self-harming situation for the sake of money.

    Regardless of the intentions of the person who is trying to scam the scammer, the original scammer has a brain as well. And when this situation played out, the scammer thought about the situation, and came to the conclusion that the possibility of a bundle of money was more important than the risk of harming themselves and others.

    The scammer can think for himself too, and if he really, honestly thinks that it’s worth it to do something like that for money, that’s his fault.

    He gets no sympathy from me.

  19. UniComp says:

    I do not think placing someone in possible mortal danger is any sort of payback for a scammer. Shame on them.

  20. RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

    Couple of things:

    Baiters are not “reverse scammers.” Most scambaiters see themselves as human shields, with a goal of forcing a scammer to spend as much time, money, and resources on the baiter, so the scammer has less of all three to spend on an actual victim. While some of the more famous baits involved getting money from a scammer, they are now discouraged, as they are dangerous, illegal, and most of the time the only person who pays is another victim the scammer has on the hook.

    Also, the scammers have a choice in this as well. They can choose to comply with a baiter’s request, and many do, hoping for a payoff. The tactic is the same they use against victims. Baiters offer a choice: do X and I will send you my money. The scammer then decides whether X is worth placing his life in mortal danger. As long as there are no innocent third parties involved, so be it. If a scammer is trampled by an elephant on the way to pick up a money transfer at a remote camp in the jungle, well, them’s the breaks. He made the decision. Not the baiter.

    I’d also like to reiterate my earlier request. Please, do not blame the victims of these scams, or assume that it was their greed that got them into trouble. There are countless published baits where the scammers posed as representatives of charitable organizations or members of the clergy, to prey on their victims generosity, rather than greed. Some victims honestly think they are helping someone in need. Should they be more careful? Yes. But the scammers will exploit any advantage they have to separate victims from their money.

  21. mferrari says:

    I am having trouble trying to screw with a scammer who just contacted me. He claims that despite the fact that I am not related, I can clam $41 million from some guy with my last name living in Togo. The best part is he says I only get 25%. Also, I am 15, which means he just found my E-Mail (my last name) and claimed some dude with an Irish name living in Africa got in a car wreck.
    Still trying to decide if he is even the least bit legit, as he gave me his phone and tax #s and the name of his law firm. (The deceased guy is supposedly his client.)

    • ClickClickThud says:

      @mferrari: Don’t use your real email address to scambait. Go read 419Eater forums and all the newbie tips and safety precautions they have there.

    • econobiker says:

      @mferrari: Heed what clickclickthud said especially since you are a teenager. Tell the scammer that you want to get your uncle from the FBI involved to make him go away. Then go to 419 eater or ebola monkey man and find out how to bait using a throw away email address. Don’t worry they will also tell you how to fish for the scammers too. I did it for a while and had no problem picking up new scammers with my throw-away email addresses.

      econobiker or the former 419 eating a.k.a. Mr. Billy Budton Lent

    • jswilson64 says:

      @mferrari: “Still trying to decide if he is even the least bit legit”

      You’re kidding, right?

  22. smokinfoo says:

    This is what I call the “Platinum Rule”:

    Do unto others as they do unto others.

    The “Golden Rule” doesn’t really cut in these times.

    Think about it, it makes sense.

  23. the-perfect-face-for-radio says:

    i have a broad sense of humor coupled with an antisocial bent. my question is, how do i get a hamas guy to walk into the western union in tel aviv carrying a sign in hebrew “i’m from hamas and i’m here to blow you up?”

  24. SacraBos says:

    They are Nigerian scammers. Sorry, but it’s accurate. Nearly all of the 419 scam e-mails I see (and one USPS one I got in ’94) were all from Nigeria. Sometimes they say they are from somewhere else, but all the routing originates in Nigerian networks.

    I listened to the podcast, and thought it was funny. If you still feel ANY sympathy for the poor guy in Chad, listen to the part where later the scammer was trying a fraud someone else (who was still the same 419 baiter!), and have him send $10,000 rather than use it to save the life of his “dying daughter”. All on the “promise” of greater returns, none of which would ever happen.

    These people have no conscience, and would take your last dime as you took your terminal breath. And still blame you for your greed, rather than their own.

    This is an African Safari I can afford, and enjoy!

  25. econobiker says:

    I too have loved the scam baiters since the early 2000’s.

    http://www.ebolamonkeyman.com is my favorite.

    I heard part of This American Life and the moralistic tone taken by the interviewer. That was stupid.

    These 419 scammers have helped put people in jail when the victim embezzels money to attempt to get the payout.

    In fact these guys have even contributed to murder, yes murder. Here in TN a preachers wife shot her husband with a shotgun while he slept. She would later get off with a lesser charge due to pulling an “abusive husband” defense (which may or may not have been true). She had been kiting checks in different banks which he found out about. She was floating the checks to pay for the 419 scam of which she was a victim.

    “In addition, Winkler told Tennessee authorities about losing $17,000 in what investigators have described as a “Nigerian 419″ check-kiting scam.”
    [www.cnn.com]

    US 419 victim shoots preacher husband: Row over money ends in tragedy
    “The Winklers’ money troubles appear to have stemmed from a 419 “sweepstake” scam in which victims are are told they’ve won a pot of cash, receive cheques for the partial amount against which they draw “processing fees” for immediate return to the scammers, and too late realise that the cheques are bogus and they’ve been had.”

    [www.theregister.co.uk]

    Ergo, I was mad at TAL for pulling the morality card…

    • Blitzgal says:

      @econobiker: Okay, that woman murdered her husband because she greedily thought that she was getting tons of money. Can we agree that she’s a scumbag here and not a victim? If she’d killed her husband because he found out about a gambling problem she had, would it be the fault of the casino she frequented?

      Some of these “victims” are using the bank accounts of other people to get the front money to pay the scammers. I do not accept that it’s only the scammers who are the criminals here.

      • econobiker says:

        @Blitzgal: My arguement is not whether or not Mary Winkler is a scumbag but that the 419 baiters are not immoral as TAL was trying to imply.

        I figure these 419 baiters are the same as REAL law enforcement putting out “bait cars” in high car theft areas. In the case of 419 scams, REAL law enforcement usually cannot do anything other than take a report since it is international via email and non-USPS transfer methods. I think there should be large posters in all banks and pop ups on every bank website describing the scams more than they do now…

  26. EOr says:

    This is a pretty extreme example of 419-baiting. I agree that it may be over the line to be putting the “lad” they are baiting in that kind of danger. That said, I do really love the 419-Eater website, and have even fed them some leads. Generally, what the baiters do is not physically dangerous to their targets. The main goal of most baiters is to get the Nigerian scammer (or “lad”) to send them an absurd photo (pouring wine in the ear, holding up an obscene sign, etc.) Beyond that, they are trying to get the scammers to waste their time (and ideally money as well) trying to lure the naive-sounding mark (aka scambaiter) into sending them a bunch of money.

  27. SigmundTheSeaMonster says:

    Dear Scammer, at this GPS location is buried one box. The box contains $1000US in $20 bills.
    (in the box is a note, Dear scammer, you are in the middle of a delay-trip mine field. Any mines you tripped to get here, will go off on second trigger. Have a nice day. PS- I spent more on the mines, than this $1000US that will blow up with you)

    Eye for an eye…and other body part…

  28. stre says:

    i don’t even feel sorry for the people that got scammed. they were greedy enough to attempt a more than questionable money transaction in order to make a few bucks, and had the scam been real they would have been breaking nigerian law.

  29. Tiber says:

    I’m a bit mixed. Those scammers that have killed, I would have no sympathy for. However, there are probably also wannabe’s (like script-kiddies are to hackers) that see it as a quick buck, and wouldn’t don’t want anything but the money. Getting them killed is a bit much. I have no way of knowing which this is, so it’s kind of a schrodinger’s scam.

    As to the greed of the victims, I can say that’s not always the case. I came close to a scam where a would-be roommate supposedly needed me to pass along part of a check she sent to pay the movers, since she wasn’t able to. I thought it was odd, but it being a scam never occurred to me. However, when I pointed out the odd things to my mom, she caught it. Was I being greedy for wanting a roommate?

  30. alcathiax says:

    I have been a long-time contributor on 419eater.com and I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever to scam artists. And when I mean scam artists, I especially mean the most prolific ones on the Internet such as those from Nigeria, Romania, and Russia.

    Scambaiting is an art that can be done by many but truely perfected by a few wiley baiters. Even though I don’t consider myself to be a guru, I have done several baits.

    One of the baits that I’ve done involved the promise that I would pay a scammer in Port Harcourt, Nigeria US$2 per page for each page he could hand copy plus $2000 for a hand-copied book. I convinced him to do one of these (see book with ISBN 1-57231-995-X) and to send it to me via express courier. He did, but I was too “lazy” to pay him. I kept jerking him around until he figured that he got duped. He was not the least bit happy, considering the long-winded death threat that I got from him, but I consider it fair treatment, retribution on behalf of all others he has scammed in the past.

    Yes, he did an excellent job at copying the book and no, I am not selling it. I have it stored in a bank safe deposit box somewhere in New York City.