Scam, Will Ya?

This week’s Phoenix has a long feature story on scambaiting (“White Hunters, Black Hearts“), the practice of turning the tables on web scammers in the most humiliating ways imaginable. This may include making a scammer hand copy all of the Harry Potter books, or carve a computer keyboard out of wood, or in one case, reenact Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch.

I’m of the mind that when someone tries to steal your life savings and you have no legal recourse to speak of, you’re well within your rights to humiliate them as badly as you see fit. According to the Phoenix piece, however, because many of these scam artists are Nigerians, getting revenge may cross the line into racist exploitation. Which, if you follow the logic, is worse than robbing people.

This conclusion echoes that of Ron Rosenbaum when he wrote the same exact story in the Atlantic three months ago, with both writers using the “Great White Hunters” motif.


But poking around various scambaiting Web sites, somewhat more sadistic dimensions to the practice come into view. While most scambaiters keep their pranks on the up and up, many others seem to revel in making their marks as miserable as possible.

Those photographs of abject humiliation are hard to swallow, even if one knows the mortification is self-imposed. The fact that their subjects are primarily poor and black only adds to their disquieting power.


At times the trophy hunting on these scam-baiting sites can seem innocent, in a clever con-artist way. But inside the trophy rooms, I found dozens of photos of black men and women wearing expressions that ranged from compliant to glum to humiliated to defiant as they held up signs saying things such as I HAVE EXCESS VAGINAL DISCHARGE. After looking at photo after photo, I felt uncomfortable—I’d lost any sense of vicarious victory over petty thieves. It was like watching self-proclaimed Great White Hunters abuse their beaters.

Some of the rhetoric of the scam-baiters is also troubling. They boast of “owning” scammers, which carries unfortunate connotations when it involves whites “owning” blacks. And there’s the mocking invective of the scam-baiting message boards and of the trophy room, a place that I sense pricks the conscience of at least some of the scam-baiters.

Rosenbaum makes a good point about the “online disinhibition effect,” how “the lonely void in which online interactions are conducted seems to encourage the tendency toward” abuse. This is true, especially in cases where scambaiters clearly go too far and try to inflict physical harm on scammers. For his part, Milliard suggests that scambaiters should be more mindful of how much shit Nigerians have had to take from the military over the last several years, which I think is a fair point, but not something you want to get too caught up in—after all, these guys have been notoriously successful at preying upon the poor and elderly in this country. Let’s not worry too much about whether we’re making them sad.

Read the pieces. They’re compelling, even if Milliard’s doesn’t add much to Rosenbaum’s, beyond sticking a couple local voices in there. He does include the great Baratunde Thurston, identified as a “Boston comedian,” even though Baratunde moved to Manhattan a few weeks ago. (That Baratunde is also a columnist at the Weekly Dig, the Phoenix’s chief competitor, goes unsaid—an annoying and typical Phoenix tic.)