Millions of computer users regularly receive spam emails asking for help moving vast fortunes to the United States and offering the recipient a piece of the action for their cooperation. Most people simply hit the delete button on these obvious scams.
But Michael Berry, operating from an undisclosed spot in the UK, sees it as a new opportunity to try and get the best of a scam artist.
Berry, author of the book "Greetings, In The Name Of Jesus," a common salutation on scam emails, said he too used to simply delete the bogus pleas for help.
"Then one day I received several scam emails within a 24 hour period, which got me really annoyed, so I decided to reply to one of these guys and tell them where to shove their scam email," Berry told ConsumerAffairs.com.
"I guess the scammer didn't read my reply very carefully because the next day, to my surprise, he sent me a copy of his passport and also a scan of a deposit certificate, both very bad fakes, of course."
Berry was intrigued.
He did a Google seach with the scammer's name. He not only learned information about the name, but also about the so-called "419 scams" that the scammer ran from Nigeria. 419 refers to the section of the Nigerian legal code that deals with advance fee scams.
Berry began a sport he calls "scambaiting," playing along with the scammer in an effort to keep him occupied with a phony victim, taking away time that would otherwise be spent taking advantage of a real victim.
Along the way, Berry dreamed up a number of creative ways to do that.
"I have often found the best way to keep a scammer interested is to play the part of a very rich, but possibly very gullible businessman," Berry said. "A scammer is more likely to agree to some of our more outrageous demands if he thinks we are very rich and that his reward will be a huge payday!"
"For example if a scammer thinks he will get $100,000 rather than say $1,000 from your everyday guy in the street, then he is liable to be a lot more pliable," Berry said.
And the requests Berry makes to scammers are indeed outrageous. Think a Monty Python movie and you get the idea.
For example, he's had scammers selling paintings to Del Trotter Antiques, insisted that they tattoo themselves to become members of his bogus church, and had them book expensive hotel rooms for him, which he, of course, never uses.
He persuaded one gullible scammer to copy an entire Harry Potter novel by hand. Another scammer, convinced that Berry was really actress Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, fell in love with him.
Why would a hardened criminal jump through Berry's elaborate hoops?
"A scammer is unlikely to drop you if he has spent many weeks or months of his valuable time on you, so it's best to play things really straight in the beginning to get his confidence," he said.
Scambaiting is not for everyone, Berry concedes. You will be dealing with some pretty disreputable characters and not everyone is psychologically prepared for it.
But for those who are eager to join in the sport, Berry has a Web site, 419eater.com where scambaiter wannabes can get scambaiting tips and trade war stories. The site currently has 24,000 registered members.
Berry says the best way to eliminate these scams is to raise awareness, but he like to think that he and his fellow pranksters are also an effective force.
"We have had cases where the same scammer may have been baited a few dozen times without actually getting to a real victim," he said. "In some cases scammers have actually given up their scamming business because all the 'victims' they thought they were scamming turned out to be scambaiters."
Among scambaiters, Berry says death threats are a "badge of honor." And while law enforcement officials say they are nearly powerless to stop these international scams, which fleece thousands of people out of millions of dollars annually, the growing number of scambaiters may well become a prevailing counterforce against the bad guys.