'Scam-Baiters' Turn Tables on Would-Be Cons Thousands of Americans fall victim to e-mail scams each year, according to the U.S. State Department. But an online community of people called scambaiters found creative — and hilarious — ways to get revenge.

'Scam-Baiters' Turn Tables on Would-Be Cons

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: the five best ideas in television, which needs ideas with new competition now from TV on the Internet.

BRAND: And speaking of the Internet, let's talk about e-mail scams. You know, those annoying e-mails where a rich person offers you a chance to get in on a great deal, but they need just a wee-bit of your money to get started.

CHADWICK: Well, this next story is about when those Internet con artists get conned themselves. Here's Xeni Jardin.

XENI JARDIN: About two weeks ago, strange video popped up on YouTube.

(Soundbite of whistling)

JARDIN: A Nigerian guy standing at the counter in a shop and a customer comes in with a birdcage.

Unidentified Man # 1: I wish to register a complaint.

JARDIN: You hear him say, despite the bad audio, that he wishes to register a complaint. It appears the parrot he just bought at this shop is dead. But the storeowner disagrees.

Unidentified Man # 2: No, no, no. He is not dead. I know a dead parrot when I see one. And I am looking at one right now.

JARDIN: The customer keeps insisting it is in fact dead, and we're left wondering, what the heck is this? And then it dawns on you: you've seen this played out before, but with different actors.

Mr. JOHN CLEESE (Actor): It's still dead.

Mr. MICHAEL PALIN (Actor): No. No, it's resting.

Mr. CLEESE: Hello, Polly. I got a nice can of fish for you when you wake up, Polly parrot.

JARDIN: It's a Monty Python sketch. But instead of John Cleese and Michael Palin, it these two random Nigerian guys.

Unidentified Man # 1: Long live the Polly parrot. I've got a lovely can of fish for you.

JARDIN: Why are these guys doing this? Well, they've been scam baited, a kind of online sport in which people try to humiliate and waste the time of Internet scammers. This particular plot was hatched by Englishman Mike Berry. About six months ago, Mike got a scam e-mail from a man in Nigeria who claimed he was rich and dying of cancer.

Mr. MIKE BERRY (Scambaiter, "Shiver Me Timbers"): He'd lived a nasty life. He'd been mean to people all through his life, and he sort of wanted to redeem himself before he passed away. So he decided he was going to distribute all these millions to charity.

JARDIN: But in order to release the funds, the man from Lagos needed Mike's help and, of course, Mike's cash. He asked Mike to cover, quote, "lawyer's fees, transaction fees," all of which would add up to thousands of dollars. But he promised that this would be minuscule compared to the fortune Mike would share.

Mr. BERRY: And I just switched it around to say I own an art company where we're busy trying to get, you know, new artists to submit work for scholarship payments. And he replied immediately to say, you know, well I'm an artist. I can supply work to you.

JARDIN: No, Mike Berry is no art dealer. He's a computer engineer. This Nigerian man who e-mailed him isn't dying or an artist. They're both lying to each other. Eventually, Mike convinces the scammer to recreate the Monty Python parrot sketch, promising to enter it in a phony film contest with a cash prize.

Mike has the video now and it's been all over YouTube, but the scammer still doesn't realize he has been conned.

Mr. BERRY: He's still expecting his payment. But unfortunately, he thinks that the guy who he's been dealing with has been arrested by the Spanish police for distributing obscene material at the moment. So he's trying to get some criminal compensation out of me at the moment.

JARDIN: Mike Berry has been scambaiting for five years. In that time, he's posed as a priest, a pirate, a scientific researcher, even an adult-video impresario. He's published the long and often hysterical e-mail chains between him and the scammers he taunts on his Web site. But Mike insists this is all more than just a good joke for him.

Mr. BERRY: As the site got more and more famous and more well known, I was getting a lot of real victims who used to e-mail me and sort of shared their stories with me. You know, you hear some horrible stories.

Ms. WANDA NESBITT (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Consular Affairs): It's a growing problem and it's becoming a very serious problem. It's one that we're quite concerned about.

JARDIN: That's Wanda Nesbitt at the U.S. State Department. She says they get complaints from thousands of people who have lost money in these online scams every year.

Ms. NESBITT: We had a case just today of a gentleman who called us, a 76-year-old gentleman from Florida. He has a disabled daughter and he's been looking for a variety of means to augment his income. He fell victim to one of these schemes, put out several thousand dollars, and of course nothing ever showed up.

JARDIN: Wanda Nesbitt stopped short of praising scambaiters like Mike Berry. And Mike doesn't recommend trying this yourself, because even experienced scambaiters are in danger when angry Internet conmen realize they've been had.

Mr. BERRY: A lot of these guys are pretty nasty pieces of work. They're a desperate bunch of people, definitely not to be messed with.

JARDIN: But rest assured, there are other people like Mike out there, a whole online subculture of scambaiters.

For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: You can see the dead parrot video in its entirety and learn more about the world of scambaiting. Visit Xeni's page at our Web site. That's NPR. org/xeni - X-E-N-I.

And we've got more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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