British online vigilante "Shiver Metimbers" is leading tens of thousands of "scambaiters" in a crusade to shut down advance-fee fraudsters, grifters who spam unwitting victims with elaborate, e-mailed sob stories promising a share of nonexistent fortunes in return for upfront payments.
So-called 419 scams, named after the section of Nigeria's criminal code that covers the conduct, are the most common type of con; victims are sometimes left penniless.
But Metimbers and crew turn the tables on scammers one by one, boomeranging the tricksters' own tactics to entice them into performing outlandish tasks in desperate pursuit of cash -- then trumpeting evidence of the con artists' naïveté for the online world's amusement.
A 43-year-old, self-employed computer engineer from Manchester, England, Metimbers has most recently spun counter-yarns that have compelled 419ers to make elaborate wood carvings, pose for comical photos and fly from London to Scotland. In one episode, which concluded in March after a five-month exchange, he succeeded in having a Nigerian fraudster tattoo "Baited by Shiver" on his body in order to claim a fictional $46,000 prize.
"Another time, the scammer thought he was going to get $18,000 out of me, but I actually got the guy to send me $80," said Metimbers, who started the 419 Eater community site almost three years ago after receiving a wave of spam in his inbox.
"I've got between five and 10 on the go at any one time," Metimbers said. "The worst thing that could possibly happen to these guys is they get their photo slapped on a website. I feel like a cybervigilante, doing my bit for the public."
Metimbers, whose real forename is Mike and who spends up to seven hours a day scambaiting, is team captain in a growing internet blood sport, in which photographic evidence of competing baiters' successes constitute trophies.
419 Eater alone numbers more than 20,000 participants around the world. Other initiatives have also surfaced in the anti-scam resistance movement, including Artists Against 419, which kills criminals' online accounts with a deluge of traffic. Baiters delight in convincing correspondents to be photographed with embarrassing and lewd Western banners -- like Metimbers, they operate using aliases to protect themselves against the death threats issued by disgruntled scammers upon realizing they have been had.
"Shiver is exceedingly creative in getting scammers to allow their greed to override their judgment," said one disciple nicknamed mrsbean, a 29-year-old female IT worker from Kentucky who claims to have wasted months of organized scammers' time.
"It is equal parts theater, chess game, psychological study, crime prevention, education and vigilante justice; it's a battle of the wits," said mrsbean. "Internet scams are unique in that they offer you an opportunity to personally combat them without compromising your own safety; the same is just not true of most crime -- one wouldn't take on the drug dealers in a local neighborhood, for instance.
"The threat of jail certainly doesn't deter these people, but being humiliated in front of their peers just might cost them some reputation. It's likely the only punishment most scammers get."
Advance-fee fraud boomed in Nigeria as government corruption and an economic downturn during the 1990s fueled poverty and disillusionment in the country, said Insa Nolte of the University of Birmingham's Centre of West African Studies.
To some, internet scams looked like an easy way to bag some quick cash.
"The availability of e-mail helped to transform a local form of fraud into one of Nigeria's most important export industries," Nolte said.
Some law enforcers trying to shut down 419 scammers now look on scambaiters' brand of Schadenfreude with envy. The 419legal.org message board was started by a South African antifraud officer to gather intelligence from worldwide combatants, while London's Metropolitan Police said it began a "coordinated approach" this month to get tips directed from baiter sites to proper channels. But investigators warn the counter-criminals are walking a fine line.
"People do it as a hobby or a part-time occupation," said detective Sgt. Stephen Truick of the Met's Economic and Specialist Crime Operational Command Unit. "But what they often don't realize is that, while they are baiting, these criminals' accounts are left open and other people are still getting scammed.
"We are taking down around 200 sites and up to 2,000 e-mail accounts per month -- we are turning the tide," said Truick. "We've seen our traffic from sites like these increase -- that's been brilliant, but I could never condone some of their actions."
And there are other concerns. Some have focused on the fact that most 419 scammers are black, accusing scambaiters of racism. But a 419 Eater statement denies any racist agenda.
"When we get an e-mail, we've got no idea whether it's from a black or a white person," Metimbers said.
The master scambaiter, whose group's members adhere to an ethics policy and operate a victim-monitoring service, says the main aim is to educate people. Metimbers said he gives police details of all his baits yet hasn't received a single response to more than 700 e-mails.
"I've even contacted the Met to say, 'This scam is in progress right now, someone is going to lose their money unless you act,' but they are not interested until the money is gone," Metimbers said, adding that up to 100 police officers had resorted to becoming undercover scambaiters on 419 Eater.
"Scambaiting is frowned upon in legal circles," he admitted, but he sees himself as a "likeable rogue" in the mold of Treasure Island's Long John Silver.
"That's how I like to be looked upon," he said.Where's Chaz now???