Lisa Black: Scambaiting 101

My next book, due out in August, deals with the people we all love to hate—scammers. Phone scammers, email scammers, Facebook message scammers. I’ve been collecting stories and facts about them for years and have tried to become what’s called a ‘scambaiter.’ There’s an entire online community that specializes in email scams, sometimes romance scams but usually of the ‘Nigerian prince’ variety. You know, where someone out of the blue has chosen you to distribute their late spouse’s philanthropic fortune/help them get their inheritance out of a refugee camp/join them in a can’t-miss business venture. The online community is called, 419 being the criminal code for fraud in Nigeria, where most of these scams still originate today. Though, like everything else, scams have gone global with many other areas of the world joining in.

The idea with scammers is always to waste their time. Every minute they’re sending you an email is a minute they’re not wringing real money out of another victim.  They cut and paste huge swaths of words, so the goal is to force them to deal specifically and uniquely with you. Send them wire transfer receipts that are out of focus, copies of illegible passports, and fake numbers of all types–fake credit cards, fake routing numbers, fake reloadable gift cards. (Google ‘fake credit card number generator’ and you can take your pick.)

Of course, do not do any of this with your real email and certainly not your real phone. I have an entire Hotmail account without a shred of truth in it. It belongs to a 22 year old Waffle House waitress in Wisconsin by the name of Chloe. Chloe responds to the spam emails sent to Lisa…trust me, the scammers will never notice. They send out hundreds per day. Once they’ve poured out their sad tale, they will eventually turn you over to their ‘contact’ at the bank who will play bad cop. Because even though they’re going to send you thousands to millions of dollars, they need a few hundred bucks first to cover the service fees.No, they can’t deduct it from your bounty, don’t even ask. They try hard to make these emails from fake bank execs look authentic, with limited success, leading to emails like “the western union reaching you and the said the are waiting to hear a reply back from you so co-pirate with them so that the will transfer all your money thanks.” He never did explain what co-pirate meant, though it doesn’t sound good.

I’m not very good at it, though. Apparently I have neither the imagination nor the patience. My biggest success so far was keeping someone going for over a month trying to get non-existent funds from his local Western Union office, which Chloe said she sent and really had no idea what the problem was. She faithfully sent him the transfer information, frustrating both the ‘reverend Paul James’ and his ‘contact’ until the reverend protested: “i went Saturday by my self in other to receive the money and it was not good so kindle go back to the bank and find out by you self or i will return the bank draft to the own or handle it to the government as i have see that you are not a seriously person and have a nice if you are serious about the payment then,attack and scan the original copy of the transfer and sent it to me to see it very well.” (Google Translate can only do so much.)

I admit I cry uncle before they do, because they won’t give up until you tell them you know they’re fake. Even then, the Reverend Paul James wrote me again the following month to say my huge check could still be redeemed. Not his fault–I’m sure dealing with hundreds of emails a day, it would be impossible to keep them all straight.

As technology advances, these schemes are falling behind the more modern telephone, text, social media messaging scams. They raked in over 700K last year, but that’s a drop in a $26 million overall bucket. In the meantime, we will continue to hang up on the spoofed phone numbers, decline friend requests from the fashion models and the hunky soldiers, and never, ever, click on the link.

Lisa Black is the NYT bestselling author of 14 suspense novels, including works that have been translated into six languages, optioned for film, and shortlisted for the inaugural Sue Grafton Memorial Award. She is also a certified Crime Scene Analyst and certified Latent Print Examiner, beginning her forensics career at the Coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and then the police department in Cape Coral, Florida. She has spoken to readers and writers at numerous conferences and will be a Guest of Honor at 2021 Killer Nashville.

In her August release, Every Kind of Wicked, forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner track down a nest of scammers.

6 replies
  1. Jean Lamb
    Jean Lamb says:

    My husband is retired and easily amused–he has a lot of fun with the phone ones when he gets a human.

  2. Kaye George
    Kaye George says:

    Full disclosure: the whole family was in on it, giving me suggestions. They were horrified I was doing it, but they all gave me ideas. I’m lucky I got off scot free and my banks and credit cards were alert! It was awfully stupid. But SO fun.

  3. Lisa Black
    Lisa Black says:

    Kaye, that’s pretty cool!! You’re more creative than I am. Some scambaiters have long, detailed correspondence with these guys but I just can’t be convincing (which is embarrassing for a writer!)!!

  4. Lisa Black
    Lisa Black says:

    Sandy, I did too! I kept a spammer like that on the phone for almost 20 one time by telling him that I WAS typing in that web address he gave me and it said ‘page not found.’ I was actually on the floor doing my afternoon workout with him on speaker. He wasn’t happy either!

  5. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Back in the day when I actually answered my land line, I was in a mischievous mood and played a complete idiot to waste a spammers time. “Windows? I have windows all over the house. Oh, the computer ones? I have a computer. What do I do with it? LOL. Fifteen minutes later, I finally told him to go take a hike. I later got a call back and the guy’s supervisor, who spoke in much better English, called me a b!#&h and went on to say more but I hung up. He definitely was not a happy camper, but I felt so vindicated because although I’d wasted my time, I’d struck them in the pocket.

  6. Kaye George
    Kaye George says:

    I’m so impressed! I tried something similar, but much more stupidly. I used my real email address. My banks are very alert, though, and I now have all new credit cards and passwords. But using another, dedicated phone, and another email address–genius. I might be ready to try this again that way. I had such fun doing it. Telling them we have to keep this quiet from my uncle in Interpol, and telling them where to meet me in Madrid or London while using thriller movie references. Completely wasted on them, but fun for me.

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