Providing Bait for Nigerian Scam Artists

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Fraudulent Nigerian inheritance e-mails are conning people out of their money. Commentator Robin Washington decided to turn the tables on the scammer, but some people go much farther.

TONY COX, host:

West African Kelvin Kamara is awaiting sentencing. He's been convicted of attempting to extort $2 million from the Christian Science Monitor to release journalist and former hostage Jill Carol. Thing is, Kamara had nothing to do with the kidnapping. Turns out, he contacted the newspaper by an infamous method now known as the Nigerian e-mail scam. Such e-mails have taken billions of dollars from their victims. But commentator Robin Washington says some people are fighting back by scamming the scammers.

ROBIN WASHINGTON: By now, anyone with an e-mail address has received the Nigerian 419 scam. Those are the e-mails that begin in broken colonial English, something like: good morning kind sir, my good man. You may be surprised to receive this. I am Prince Mabhoutu el Salasi(ph), heir to the throne of Congostan(ph). And so on.

It's usually followed by a sob story of war and revolution, and how the prince is in need of a Westerner to help him get tens of millions of dollars out of his country. I've been getting these for years and laughing them off. But they started flooding my mailbox, and I decided to fight back. I responded to one from someone named Bello(ph). And using the same bad language he had, told him I was interested in his offer. I didn't lie. I was interested. He had asked for my phone number, and I wrote back, saying the best number to call was (202)324- 3000. He called the number and wrote back.

Dear Robin, I called as you have instructed me. However, I hope you are not joking with these transaction. The number you gave me was for the FBI. They said you don't excite there. I think he meant exist, not excite. But as I said, I didn't lie. I never said it was my number, just the best one to call. And I gave his e-mail to the FBI. As much fun as that was, it was as far as I wanted to go.

But now, an entire obsession has blossomed on the Net called scam baiting - people who spend all their waking hours dreaming up ways to scam the scammers. They write back to the scammers and even call them. sometimes using computer- generated voices.

The scam baiters try to send the scammers on wild goose chases, tricking them into wasting time and money on postage and phone calls. This may sound like harmless fun, but the scam baiters may be committing fraud themselves. And it's worth noting that most of the scam baiters are white and most of the scammers are black. The scam baiters deny any racism in their fun. But many of their tricks involve sexual humiliation, such as getting the scammers to pose in obscene photos and posting them on the Web.

I think there is a racial element to it. Yet at the same time, the scam baiters are providing a public service, even if a vigilante one. And I'm not about to feel sorry for the scammers. Over the years, they've taken billions of dollars from innocent people, including people of color.

As for me, I retired from the games even before I knew it was an organized sport. As Bello would say, it just didn't excite me.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota.

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