Racism in International Context: Nigerian “Scam Baiters”

As I’ve written about here before, the contours of racism in a global, networked society are changing. Old forms of overt racism now exist alongside emergent new forms of cyber racism.   One of those new forms of cyber racism is the phenomena of white Americans pursuing Nigerian email scammers, a practice known as “scam baiting.”  If you’re not familiar with this practice, there have been a couple of stories in the news recently that shed a some light on this new form of vigilantism.   Here’s a brief description from a recent piece at CNN/Money.com:

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.”

Sodini and other “scam baiters” like “Rover,” a scam baiter since the 1990s who owns the scambaiting site 419eater.com, get 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.

These photos are called “trophies” in the parlance of the scam baiters, and in many ways are reminiscent of the photographs of lynchings that were once popular in the U.S.   The radio show This American Life did an episode about the men (yes, they’re all men) who do this. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the CNN/Money.com report nor the This American Life episode mention race as even a factor at play in, if not an underlying motive for, these transnational vigilantes.  Certainly none of the reporting that’s been done about this to date mentions any similarity with lynching photography.

My colleague at John Jay-CUNY, Dara N. Byrne, is doing some really interesting work on this phenomenon.  Combining the concept of “vigilante” with the digital era, she examines a range of what she calls “digilantism.”    Dara presented a paper called, “Digilante Culture: The Rhetorical Performance of Justice and Punishment on the Wild Wild Web,” at the eastern regional sociology meetings (ESS) in Boston on a panel I helped organize.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the rhetorical performance of justice and punishment in digilante culture. Digilantism is the term I use to refer to the growing practice amongst some netizens, mostly based in the United States and the United Kingdom, who mete out extrajudicial punishment to cyber-criminals such as scammers, hackers, and pedophiles. Although digilantism is a growing internet subculture, short of legal research on cyber-crime, little attention has been paid to the rhetorical, cultural, and socio-historical dimension of this widely practiced do-it-yourself form of justice. The paucity of digital media research is particularly surprising given the explosion of popular and scholarly rhetoric on cyber-terrorism, digital surveillance, and internet security and safety. The purpose of my paper then is to address this gap by developing a typology of digilante justice. I focus on responses to real cyber-crimes on a range of sites, including Nigerian 419 and Russian romance scam-baiting sites, pedophile watchdog sites, and texasborderwatch discussion groups.

So, in trying to understand ‘racism in an international context’ as we’ve been doing here this week, one of the things to keep in mind is that the international context has changed with the digital era.  While in the early days of the digital era, there was much speculation by respected sociologists that nation-states would lose control because the Internet, along with globalization, would undermine sovereignty.   More recently, however, other scholars have argued that it is an illusion to think that we are living in a borderless world and that nation-states do still matter very much, despite trends of globalization and the Internet.   The rise of scam baiters and this particular expression of cross-border digilantism – with its echoes of lynching photography – point out one of the ways that old forms of overt racism are re-mixed with new forms of racism in our globally networked society.

Comments

  1. Joe

    Jessie, could you comment a bit more on the racial aspects of this. Do you mean that the scambaiters do not go over white scams, but focus only on those who are not white and/or poor? Do we have a sense of the baiters actually views and statements on this stuff?

  2. Will

    I checked out one of the websites featured at the CNN/Money site you mentioned in the blog. The site is called ebolamonkeyman.com which you can tell automatically that the website is racist. Yet, in the disclaimer they said:

    “We at ebolamonkeyman.com are not racist nor do we have any associations with racist people of any sex or persuasion.”

    *shakes my head*

  3. Jessie Author

    Sure, Joe ~ sorry to be less than clear. The racial component is that the scam baiters appear to be almost exclusively white (and male), and their “hunting” of scammers (their language) is targeted to non-white people. The leading example of this are the whites profiled in the press reports cited above who go after Nigerian scammers. Although one of the scambaiters in the article mentions going after scammers in other countries with predominantly white populations, the “trophy” photographs are exclusively of Nigerians, often holding handwritten signs, sometimes performing humiliating acts that simulate sex acts or castration.

    The scambaiters do not talk about this activity in explicitly racist terms, but rather in terms of doing it to “make their friends laugh,” or as a “mission” to punish those they say are wrong-doers.

  4. marandaNJ

    This is strange! Anybody who derives pleasure from making fools of other people, even people who are themselves not obeying laws such as scammers, is not healthy. This is Not a psychologically healthy way of finding entertainment.
    As far as being on a mission to punish wrong-doers..well, there’s an element of psychosis in that also. The Christian thing to do would be to avoid scammers yourself and/or report them via the net to abuse lists, and leave it at that. To make a sport of this [and yes it does sound like they’re targeting blacks] is abusive and inhumane. Does cruelty really turn these guys on? I’d hate to be their wives.

  5. Cam

    I must admit I was taken in by this article. But what is the relationship between racism and nation here? Are the white men racist because they systematically target Nigerians vs. other scammers? That there is a “racial” component because the men are “almost” all white and the “criminals” “non-white” does not explain the constitution of racism but that of a relation. Also, that the leading example of white vigilantism concerns Nigerian scammers and that the trophy pictures are of Nigerians does not by default mean that this relation exemplifies international racism. Please understand that I actually want to go with you here, but more comparative work needs to be done for a critique of racism to have legs. Here are some questions: Are the scambaiters motivated by already existing beliefs about whiteness, white supremacy, racial difference, and securing the perimeters of the nation? If so, how? Are they motivated by already existing and emergent notions of blackness and foreignness? If so, how? Are the securitizing practices of the scambaiters not motivated by white scammers?

    On a different note, how are we to theorize the racialization of Nigerianess here? What kind of problems does the construction of Nigerianess in the pictures pose to our understanding of racialization and its effect, race? What kind of racial and gendered subjects emerge out of the trophy photography?

    One last note: you lost me when you compared the trophy photos to lynching pictures. You do this twice, so I understand that it is an important homology to you. However, after examining the visual culture of digital vigilantism I would argue that the poetics and reasons behind lynching photography are distinct from the poetics and reasons motivating the shaping of trophy photos. The white vigilantism of lynching visual culture is motivated by a genocidal desire to rid the nation of black bodies; in contrast, the white vigilantism of trophy photography is motivated not by systematic murder but rather by a desire to minstrelize Nigerian male and female bodies. This is not to say that there are not homologies between these white supremacist genres of visual culture; but it is to say that we need to be more careful.

    In any case, those are my few, very few, cents. Interesting work. Look forward to more.

    • Kristen

      Cam, I think your questions are very valid – we could study this issue in much further depth. (But I don’t agree that it’s premature to discuss the role of racism.)

      I also wondered at first about the comparison with lynching photos (and I’ve yet to see any of the scambaiting photos), but it made more sense after Will’s and Jessie’s comments above. I hope others will comment on this too, but I don’t have the same understanding of lynching photos as you. The way I understand it, the popularity of lynching photos didn’t reflect a genocidal desire on the part of whites. Rather, the imagery of the pictures helped whites define themselves as superior to African Americans, and as in control over them. They needed this contrast to even define themselves as white; white people have always needed people of color nearby (or, perhaps, just “next door” in cyberspace) to maintain a superior sense of self. So, likening scambaiting photos (and its American white male culture) to lynching photos makes quite a lot of sense to me.

      Of course, as you point out and as Jessie acknowledges, we do have to consider the role of nation, which likely nuances this particular phenomenon beyond a simple “racism” label. That’s where it gets really interesting.

      Great post. “Someone should do a research study on this.”

  6. DJohnson

    Wait a second. Isn’t it racist of the scammers to target mostly white Americans? Why not set aside your racial lens for a second and at least acknowledge that the scammers are thieves, after all!

    If one of these scammers managed to take some money off a white man, I get the feeling you’d say he was a victim of future inflation of the dollar. The white-racial, patriarchy strikes again!

  7. marandaNJ

    I think one of the points of this post, Mr. Johnson, is that two wrongs don’t make a right. If your neighbor steals apples from your apple tree, what would you do? Perfect example.
    You could call the cops and report the guy as a thief. You could tell the guy you saw him pick the apples and if he does it again, you’ll then call the cops. You could terminate your relationship with this neighbor cause obviously he’s not trust worthy.
    Or…you could set a trap for the guy! Leave a bushel of apples outside his back door in the middle of the night and then ring the doorbell. When he opens the door in his underwear you take a photo and distribute it all over the neighborhood “just for kicks”.
    If you behaved like this, would you honestly be proud of yourself? Isn’t your behavior, if you went to this extreme just as despicable as your neighbor’s? Letting go of your dignity and integrity to “get even” reveals much more about You than it does about Your Neighbor, Sir.

    • Will

      You took the words right out of keyboard, Miranda, and I meant it in a good way,

      I also would like to add to Mr. Johnson’s comment that scammers and con artists come in all colors and they target whoever is easy enough to buy into their scheme.

      Speaking from experience, I was duped once by scammers from England (or so it seemed according to the base of operations). The president of the company was a white man, according to the photo at least.

      I met a scammer online that’s a white woman from England. She targeted me because she thought she could use me in the old “money order” trick, but I got wise to her true motives and rejected her.

      The point is that scammers target anyone who’s gullable enough to take them seriously, and in some cases it doesn’t matter who they are. All it matters is are they going to fall for it or not.

      Some con artists work their operations right here in the US. Sometimes they don’t have to be email fraudsters or money order scams. Sometimes they can car dealers, insurance sellers, and banks.

      • Will

        I almost forgot one major scammer or con artist that beats them all. They’re known as politicians. Not all of them, but more than enough to make that point.

  8. DJohnson

    Yes, of course. The victims of scams should call the police. By the way, would that be the police here or in Nigeria?

    I question the perspective of Jessie, whose sympathies seem to lie wholly with the scammers and not at all with their victims. Or maybe I missed the post where Jessie deplored the racism of the Nigerians who perpetrate the scams.

  9. huckleberrypie

    Not to mention that there are a host of scambaiters who do operate and expose scammers in a professional and respectable manner without resorting to puerile taunts and racism. Like in the case of Jim Browning whose exploits versus tech support scammers operating out of India have earned praise from Indians themselves who are understandably sick and tired of the racist stereotyping they get no thanks to those scammers. Granted, Jim’s vigilantism isn’t exactly legal, but when you think about the victims he saved, and how he served as a ray of light to both law-abiding Indians and scam victims, it’s hard to just generalise on scambaiting as an exclusively racist activity to gloat on other ethnicities.

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