Posted 17 July 2005 by Robert Peake.

The BBC released an interesting article about a group called 419 Eater that is baiting and harassing perpetrators of 419 (aka “Nigerian Bank”) scams. From their code of ethics (which really is a FAQ), it seems the group aims to waste the time and resources of fraudsters while having fun stringing them along by their greed. This ostensibly is why the baiters do not consider the “sport” a waste of their own time, since they enjoy seeing how ludicrous a story the fraudsters will buy, and how demeaning a photo they can get the fraudsters to send in of themselves. While I can understand the frustration of anyone stung by an Internet scam (yes, I still capitalize that word–but that’s another post) I still feel that Internet vigilantism of any form often does more harm than good.
As I mentioned in a previous post, employing unethical tactics in pursuit of “education” or “just a bit of fun” does not justify the means. The truth is that criminal actions need to be handled by legal authorities, and prevented by education. Taking the stance that you can do what you like to someone if you believe their intentions to be criminal is a form of superiority to ethical standards, if not the law. And promoting fraud baiters, anti-spam vigilantes, or other groups as heroes through mainstream media only reinforces their belief that because people are frustrated by spam and scams that vigilante tactics are justified. It dissolves the line between criminals and criminal-haters.

Having myself been harassed by anti-spam vigilantes for operating an opt-in mailing list of high integrity, I know that in the fervor of righteousness people often make mistakes–perhaps more so than impartial legal authorities would.

So, instead of playing with fire, here is the recommended approach for dealing emails appearing to be 419 scams: US citizens, simply forward a copy of the message with full headers to 419 dot fcd at usss dot treas dot gov (the US secret service). (Thanks to Consumer Web Watch for this advice.) International options for reporting scams are available courtesy the 419 coalition, an educational outreach group.