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The Moral Dubiety of Scam-Baiters

Ron Rosenbaum has a great piece in this month's Atlantic on the burgeoning phenomenon of 419 scam-baiting. We've all received those semi-literate emails from Mobutu's former oil minister declaring that for a small transaction-facilitation fee, millions of tied-up dollars can … Read More

By / May 4, 2007
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Ron Rosenbaum has a great piece in this month's Atlantic on the burgeoning phenomenon of 419 scam-baiting. We've all received those semi-literate emails from Mobutu's former oil minister declaring that for a small transaction-facilitation fee, millions of tied-up dollars can be yours. (419 refers to the Nigerian Law that prohibits online fraudulence of this kind; most of the email scammers are West African.) Well, savvy netizens with too much time on their hands have crafted elaborate — and often ingenious — games with which they counter-bait their baiters. When Jewcy Senior Editor Joey Kurtzman showed me the polestar of the movement 419Eater, I actually cried with laughter. The evidence that 419Eater's sitemaster and the primus inter pares of scam-baiters, a Brit called Mike Berry, posts in the "Trophy Room" is worth the price of admission.

All good fun, but Rosenbaum cites one of the moral concerns of being a Robin Hood of Gmail, particularly when the Nottinghams are all black:

I would like to give the scam-baiters the benefit of the doubt. At its best, scam-baiting can be seen as a kind of communal self-defense and a recompense for damage done—and it rarely involves physical harm or incarceration. (Scam-baiting may exact a toll in time and money and humiliation, but scammers largely escape official justice.) But when I look at the photos in the 419eater trophy room, I feel something has gone a bit wrong with the evolution of the scam-baiting community. What started out as a good-natured form of rough justice has become, in some respects, a theater of cruelty.

The more one investigates scam-baiting, the more one gets entangled in an emblematic ethical and behavioral question posed by the growth of communication in cyberspace. Are we getting a new, somewhat bleaker vision of human nature as we’re freed from the bounds of real-time, face-to-face contact? Is the viciousness of the discourse what human nature would look like in a vacuum? Things certainly seem rancorous, not to mention regressive and infantile, in the gang wars of the right and left lobes of the political blogosphere, which (especially if you read the “comments”) often seem more about humiliating and degrading those who take an opposing position than about persuading anyone of the rationality of one’s arguments. 

 

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