by Zac Amos
Cybercrime has drastically increased in recent years, heavily impacting vulnerable people and organizations. In response, digital vigilantes took up scambaiting to get revenge on scammers.
While it may be a solution to an inadequate system, some argue it has little genuine effect. Does it actually deter anyone?
What Is Scambaiting?
Some experts project global annual cybercrime costs to reach $10.5 trillion by 2025, up from $3 trillion in 2015. It’s an ever-growing issue that needs attention.
Since individuals are most often a target, many responded by scambaiting. It originated as a response to excessive scam emails and calls but has grown in popularity as fraud becomes more rampant.
Basically, scambaiting is a tactic to keep scammers engaged as long as possible to prevent them from targeting others. It usually involves deception or social engineering methods on the scambaiter’s part.
They intentionally waste time and typically stall as much as possible. Many upload their interactions to the internet afterwards.
How Does Scambaiting Work?
Essentially, scambaiters are digital vigilantes that seek revenge on scammers. Some seek out fraud, while others only react after contact. Since fraud affects almost 4.6 million people annually, they typically don’t have to wait long.
Once they are speaking with a scammer, the scambaiters typically disguise themselves as naive and vulnerable. They pretend to genuinely believe whatever claims they are fed to prolong engagement. Since they are not actually interested, the interactions end up wasting the fraudster’s time and frustrating them.
For example, a scambaiter who receives an illegitimate email will respond and pretend to be oblivious to the fraud. They follow all of the scammer’s orders up to the point where they’d send money. Then, they either pretend to be incompetent to further stall or reveal their deception.
It encompasses all types of scams, so scambaiters are sometimes in contact for days or weeks before revealing themselves.
Many trick scammers into performing humiliating actions or revealing personal information. Some take it further and attempt to disrupt the fraud operation, whether through damaging their computers or publicizing their location.
Is Scambaiting Necessary?
According to the United Kingdom National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, COVID-related cybercrime reached $34.5 million in losses as of 2021. As long as digital fraud continues to increase, some form of scam prevention will be necessary.
While individuals using scambaiting may not be the best suited for the position, they are often the only ones who take action. Many legal and regulatory bodies don’t take scams seriously because they can be challenging to investigate.
As technology advances, so do scammer tactics.
For instance, they can create fake content with generative artificial intelligence in a few short minutes — and it’s more realistic than ever. Finding their true identity is much more challenging when they essentially produce faulty evidence of their existence — doing a reverse image search with original, unpublished content isn’t possible.
Police have struggled to pursue cybercrime because of the continuously increasing demand. They don’t have enough resources to cover all the new cases they receive, so many go unsolved.
Digital vigilantes potentially prevent more people from becoming victims of fraud. Their efforts may not have an incredibly significant impact, but collective action can help.
In addition, scambaiters often make up for the state’s insufficiencies. For example, Birmingham City University labeled the U.K.’s national fraud hotline as unfit for purpose in 2020 after investigations uncovered consistent inaction.
One discovered that it successfully pursued only one in 50 fraud cases and simply abandoned the others. Scambaiting may not be an ideal response, but it’s often the only solution available to most.
What Motivates Scambaiters?
Most internet vigilantes engage in scambaiting because they want retribution or feel a sense of justice. Most often, they seek to cause frustration and disorder — whatever will cause a significant impact.
Scambaiters have four primary motivators:
- Raise awareness: People exposed to videos or descriptions of scambaiting are more likely to recognize fraud.
- Deter scammers: Some take steps to damage a scammer’s resources or reputation, deterring them from future fraud attempts.
- Prevent scams: Keeping a scammer occupied with a call that will go nowhere can protect others from being scammed. As long as they’re busy, they can’t cause actual harm.
- Disrupt operations: Many attempt to cause significant damage or distress to have more long-term disruptions in the fraud operation.
Most scambaiters share these motivators. While they generally have good intentions and get positive results, some are more malicious. It’s an unregulated practice, so they have no set standards.
What Are the Disadvantages of Scambaiting?
While scambaiting can be a much faster alternative to regulated activities, it does come with potential disadvantages.
The 419eaters forum is a good example. It’s the self-described biggest scambaiting group in the world, with more than 1.7 million threads as of 2021.
Although its members put consistent effort into fraud disruption and prevention, their intent is sometimes misaligned.
Their system rewards certain activities. For example, the pith helmet award goes to people who can get their target to travel more than 200 miles in one trip.
They also often convince scammers to send nude graphic images because they can then post them online. Their goal is public humiliation.
The reward system incentivizes users to cause disproportional mental or physical strain. Many assume the fraudster’s malicious intentions justify this behavior, but does one immoral action justify another? A large, unregulated collective acting in such a capacity can potentially be dangerous.
What Are Potential Scambaiting Dangers?
Scambaiting can pose risks to the scambaiter as well as the fraudster. The people behind the deception are already willing to steal the life savings of vulnerable people, so there’s potential for more significant adverse reactions.
There are a few potential scambaiting dangers:
- Disproportionate responses: Many people are driven by anger when scambaiting, which increases the likelihood of taking things too far. While some may feel their actions are just, they may only be seeking harm to get revenge on scammers.
- Legal consequences: Many people want to give scammers a taste of their own medicine, but the law doesn’t protect their actions. Doing something illegal in pursuit of catching a scammer is still illegal.
- Increased scam attempts: Scammers will continue to contact someone if they initially answer. Also, they will often bombard scambaiters with messages and calls in retribution.
- Accidental information disclosure: Scambaiters can accidentally expose their personal information — like their IP address — while interacting with a scammer, which can open them up to a potentially dangerous response from the scammer.
People who seek revenge on scammers should be aware of potential scambaiting dangers to protect themselves. While retribution may be as minor as constant phone calls, it can quickly escalate.
Does Scambaiting Deter Scammers?
Although scambaiting has disadvantages and possible dangers, it’s a relatively common response to increased fraud levels. Scammers are targeting individuals at an unprecedented rate. Regulatory and legal bodies can’t handle their workloads and are resorting to case abandonment. Digital vigilantes may possess questionable motives and methods at times, but they offer many more options than the current system.
Applying standards to scambaiting could help ensure more legitimate and ethical practices. A cybercrime professor from the University of New South Wales believes more regulation and stricter payment barriers could reduce half of all scams at minimum.
However, given the scale that scammers operate at, scambaiters may not have the impact they hope for. Even if they succeed in deterring one scammer, that will likely not translate to deterring the scammer’s entire network. But while scambaiters may not make much of a dent in overall scamming activities, they are improving awareness.
Scambaiter content creators have risen in popularity in recent years, providing viewers with inside details on how scams work and bringing scam awareness into the public consciousness.
Scambaiting may not be the perfect solution, but it can still be a valid tactic in a system of inaction. More collective action in the future may genuinely deter scammers from defrauding vulnerable people, and the rise of scambaiters as content creators should help more people avoid being scammed themselves.