Scam baiting is a form of Internet vigilantism, where the vigilante poses as a potential victim to the scammer in order to waste their time and resources, gather information that will be of use to authorities, and publicly expose the scammer. It is primarily used to thwart advance-fee fraud and technical support scams and can be done out of a sense of civic duty (activism), as a form of amusement, or both. However, some scambaiting can involve racism; others may document scammers' tools and methods, warn potential victims, provide discussion forums, or take down fraudulent webpages.
A bait is very simply initiated, by answering a scam email, from a throwaway email account, i.e. one that is only used for baiting and untraceable back to the actual owner. The baiter then pretends to be receptive to the financial hook that the scammer is using.
Some baits are also initiated by the baiter searching for fake pop-up messages, and calling the number on said pop-up. Quite often these pop-ups are disguised as official virus warnings or alerts from companies such as Microsoft.
The objectives of scam baiting are, in no particular order:
- To keep the call going as long as possible, thus costing the scammer time and energy.
- To gather as much information as possible, so that the scammer can be personally identified and publicly exposed.
- To ensure the scams, and any names used, are easily found by search-engine spiders, as a preventive strategy.
A popular method to accomplish the first objective is to ask the scammer to fill out made-up questionnaires, intended to be time consuming. The idea is that when a scammer is preoccupied with a baiter who has no intention of falling victim to the scam, it prevents the scammer in question from conning genuine victims out of their money. Activists may bait scammers into taking long trips, encourage the use of poorly-made props, or teach English-language idioms that surreptitiously throw doubt upon the scam.
Amusements that the baiter may gain from the interaction include fooling the scammer into falling for claims just as ludicrous as the ones that the scammer is using to defraud his victims, or in the case of baiting tech support scammers, the frustration a scammer gets from either logging into a Macintosh or GNU/Linux system, falling for a trap set up by the baiter, in some cases a remote administration tool in order to gain sensitive information from the scammer's computer as evidence or cause damage to the computer being commandeered by the baiter, or being publicly humiliated through a live stream of a scam session taking place. Baiters will often use joke names or references to Western popular culture which, while obviously ludicrous to a native or fluent English speaker, will go unnoticed by the scammer. Similarly baiters may introduce characters, and even plot-lines, from movies or television shows for comedic effect. It has also been known for the scammers themselves to adopt fake names that in their native culture would seem equally absurd, mirroring this element.
In May 2004, a Something Awful forum poster asked for advice on how to deal with a bogus escrow scam from a buyer on eBay. Since the eBay auction was for an Apple PowerBook G4, another forum poster suggested that he construct a replica PowerBook out of cardboard. The buyer, who lived overseas, was forced to pay several hundred dollars to customs to claim the fake laptop. A member of the scambaiting website 419eater.com was able to convince a scammer to send him a wooden replica of a Commodore 64.
In February 2011, the Belgian television show Basta portrayed, with hidden cameras, how a scammer was fooled during a meeting with baiters, raising the stakes by involving a one-armed man, two dwarves and a pony. Eventually, a police raid was faked, during which the baiters were arrested and the scammer went free, abandoning the money, and without any suspicion.
In January 2014, members of 419eater.com appeared in two segments of the Channel 4 show Secrets of the Scammers. In the first segment scambaiters persuaded a scammer to travel from London to a remote location in Cornwall by train and taxi to meet a victim (played by a baiter) and collect payment for a gold deal. In the second segment a female scammer met with two scambaiters posing as victims in Trafalgar Square to pass them a fake check. This scammer was subsequently questioned by the police.
- "A guide to trolling a tech support scammer (Wired UK)". Wired UK. 15 October 2012. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
- Nakamura, Lisa (1 December 2014). "'I WILL DO EVERYthing That Am Asked': Scambaiting, Digital Show-Space, and the Racial Violence of Social Media". Journal of Visual Culture. 13 (3): 257–274. doi:10.1177/1470412914546845.
- Zingerle, Andreas; Kronman, Linda (2013). "'Humiliating entertainment or social activism?': Analyzing Scambaiting Strategies Against Online Advance Fee Fraud": 352–355. Retrieved 2015-07-13.
- Cheng, Jacqui (2009-05-11). "Baiting Nigerian scammers for fun (not so much for profit)". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2015-12-26.
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- Roth, Wolf-Dieter (2004-05-28). "Wir basteln uns ein Apple G4 P-P-P-Powerbook". Telepolis (in German). Retrieved 2015-12-26.
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- Pest eens een internetfraudeur Basta on YouTube (in Dutch) Archived 2016-05-08 at the Wayback Machine.
- Secrets of the Scammers on YouTube