NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- To Internet fraudsters promising vast riches in exchange for advance fees: meet the scambaiters.
These self-described Web vigilantes go after alleged e-mail scammers claiming to be Nigerian princes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Chinese businessmen. They say they need your help (i.e. your money) to access fake multi-million dollar accounts or palaces full of gold.
Most people recognize these e-mails for what they are and delete them without replying, but enough victims actually fall for these scams to keep them coming.
And then there are the scambaiters who answer the e-mails and feign genuine interest in sending money, as a ploy to send the scammers on a wild goose chase.
Mike Sodini, a firearms importer and owner of the Web site ebolamonkeyman.com, says he started scambaiting in 2001, when he worked at an Internet real estate marketing firm that got inundated with scam e-mails.
Sodini started writing back out of curiosity "to see how the operation would go" and he said it soon became a hit with his co-workers, who would gather around his computer to read his farcical dialogue.
"I started it to make my friends laugh and see what was going on," he says. "I didn't have a motive of, 'Let's get these guys."
In his responses, he would masquerade as characters that were "crazier than the scammers," he says, including a porn star and a racist rube. "There were times when I would pretend I was a Nigerian scammer and I would say, 'Dude, what are doing? I'm one of you."
For further fun, Sodini got alleged scammers to make fools of themselves by posing in photos and holding signs with offensive statements. He says he would get them to do this by claiming it was "for tax purposes," which was a ruse, since he never intended to send them money. He says he'd also convince them to make numerous trips to airports and Western Unions, lured by the promise of money packages that never arrived.
The name of his site comes from his first scambait, a long-running e-mail dialogue that ended when he finally accused his fraudulent pen-pal of being a scammer and said he wasn't good enough to win the scammer-of-the-year award, which was "a cute Ebola monkey." He has posted this exchange on his Web site.
Sodini says he "retired" from active scambaiting about four years ago, when the fraudsters got savvy to his ploys and started identifying him as "Ebola Monkey Man" within the first couple of e-mails. But he continues to run his site, featuring past dialogue with scammers and photographs of them holding signs, as well as fan mail and hate mail.
"Rover," a scambaiter since the 1990s who would not provide his real name, doesn't see his efforts as a joke, but as a mission. In stringing along alleged fraudsters, his goal is "to take their eye off the ball" by luring them away from potential victims, because "they're spending time with us instead of spending time with other people."
Rover owns the scambaiting site 419eater.com, which is a reference to the Nigerian criminal code for fraud. He says many of the fraudulent e-mails originate in Nigeria, but they also come from England, the Netherlands and China. Some scams are ripped from recent headlines, with fraudulent appeals to help earthquake victims of Haiti and Chile.
"[The scammers] will go after anybody that they perceive has the time to give them," he says. "They're obviously just sending out hundreds and hundreds of e-mails."
Some of the scambaits are quite elaborate in their use of fake names, personas and situations. Rover's site chronicles a counter-ruse in which "Troy McClure," the recipient of a Nigerian 419 e-mail, accused the sender of being a scammer and then made a deal with him. McClure convinced "Steven Okoma" and his accomplices to track down a GPS-equipped trunk with $600,000 in stolen cash floating off Namibia's Skeleton Coast. During weeks of Internet back-and-forth, Okoma complained of his failure in trying to locate this nonexistent cash box, according to Rover. He periodically asked for money, while McClure continuously berated and insulted him.
"Those poor scammers went through hell and back," Rove says.
Once the alleged scammers realize that the tables have been turned and the joke's on them, the conversation gets ugly. Sodini says he's been threatened with trained assassins and a witch doctor's curse by his victims who realized they'd been punked.
"They spend every waking moment thinking of how to get your money out of you and if they don't get it, you get a death threat," says Rover, who feels justified in baiting them.
"You've got to see what they do to their victims," he says. "We've heard of suicides, of families going into bankruptcies. All they're after is money. You could be lying on your deathbed, and your last 10 dollars has to go to them. I've got no remorse for these people."
Rover says that he and the 14 moderators running his site are all volunteers. He says that he supports his site with donations, as well as advertising. Sodini also has advertising on his site, and he sells T-shirts, coffee mugs, clocks featuring the Ebola Monkey Man logo.
Internet fraud has increased dramatically in recent years, as scammers take advantage of Americans rendered desperate by the recession. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says it received 336,655 complaints in 2009, a jump of 22.3% from the year before and a surge of 45% from 2005. The bureau says that dollar losses doubled to $559.7 million in 2009 from the prior year.
CNNMoney.com replied to several e-mails that appeared to be scams and asked the senders why they were contacting strangers to partner with their solicitations.
One sender wrote back, claiming to be a lawyer for a terminally ill English multi-millionaire whose "last wish" was to establish an orphanage "to be managed by someone she did not know." The sender then offered this reporter a job managing the orphanage, which would pay a "very sumptous [sic] remuneration for you." Another attempt to reach the sender for an interview went unanswered.
The Secret Service, which counts Internet fraud investigation among its duties, does not recommend that anyone engage in scambaiting.
"We don't encourage anybody to interact with anyone that they think is trying to perpetrate a crime on them," says spokesman Ed Donovan. "If you get an e-mail from someone you don't know, you should delete it. Anyone who's asking for money or personal information, you should just delete it."
Another Secret Service spokesman, Malcolm Wiley, says his agency "actively pursues" international scam rings, but it's hard to track the thieves and to recover losses.
HSBC banker arrested at JFK airport as he prepared to leave the country. He and former trader face federal charges they manipulated currency trades. More
It's about to get harder for some luxury all-cash home buyers to hide their identity from the U.S. government. More
In 1998, Ntsiki Biyela won a scholarship to study wine making. Now she's about to launch her own brand. More