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Calvin Huckle is bent over in his swivel office chair like he's going to vomit. His e-mail message, recited back to him in his living room in New Athens, Illinois, has him choking with laughter.
The real reason that I did not send the money was not because I did not have it — it was because I was too busy fucking your mother. Normally I don't fuck skanky West African whores like your mother — but she was VERY accommodating...Of course the $5 bill that I paid your mother with was a worthless fake — just like you. LOL!
Please send me your office address and perhaps you and I can revive our failed partnership.
— Calvin Huckle
P.S. Tell your mom I said "Hi."
Clearly, the "partnership" never came to fruition. During the four months that led up to the vulgar missive, "Dr. Jerome" and his cohorts were offering Huckle $12 million to invest in American businesses on their behalf. They promised that Huckle could share in the profits.
Jerome claims he gave the $12 million in cash to a diplomat who carried it on a flight to Toronto. Jerome asked Huckle to speed $3,000 to a courier in Canada who would collect and hand-deliver the loot to Huckle. Translation: You'll get your money, Huckle, if you send us a little in advance.
Jerome's ruse is but one variation on the widespread e-mail swindle known as "advance-fee fraud" or a "419 scam" — so named for Article 419 of the Nigerian criminal code concerning fraud. Most of these scams originate in West Africa and have been cluttering inboxes over the past decade, claiming an increasing number of victims worldwide.
"It's only getting worse with the economy the way it is," says Terrill Caplan of Fraud Aid, a national nonprofit providing support and guidance for scam victims. In the past year, says Caplan, Fraud Aid has received more than 100,000 reports of scam e-mail from people in the United States and Canada.
Since the economy began to unravel last fall, such reports have increased by nearly 25 percent, and the number of victims has shot up by about 11 percent. Says Caplan: "More people are grasping at straws than ever before."
But as Dr. Jerome learned too late, Huckle is neither grasping at straws, nor is he a naïve sucker. He wants his inbox cluttered with scam offers.
Calvin Huckle is actually the alias employed by Illinois native Paul Kinsella, a 37-year-old father of two and a full-time "scam-baiter."
Scam-baiters like Kinsella float their contact information on the Internet, hoping to hook an e-mail scammer. Once a scammer bites, Kinsella reels him in slowly, squandering as much of the huckster's time and money as possible. He then catalogues the whole process — called a "bait" — on his website, www.419hell.com.
In baiting Jerome, for example, Kinsella lured him into typing 46 e-mails and making sixteen long-distance calls from West Africa. All the while, Jerome thought he was closing in on his prey. But after four months he had nothing to show for it, other than some salacious insights on his own mother.
"Ahh," Kinsella sighs with satisfaction as he recalls the e-mail. He runs a hand over his scrubby brown hair and looks to the ceiling through large-frame tinted glasses. "I must've spent hours coming up with the perfect mother insult."
On the phone, Paul Kinsella never sounds aggressive with scammers. His voice always assumes the raised pitch of a nice young man chatting with a stranger. On this March afternoon, dressed in a plaid golf shirt that's tucked into straight blue jeans, a smiling Kinsella hardly seems the type capable of authoring the blistering e-mail he sent to Dr. Jerome.
This kind of e-mail is what baiters call a "burn." It is the gotcha message that comes at the end of a bait, letting the scammer know he's been counter-scammed. Some of Kinsella's "burns" and other baiting techniques have made him a bit of a black sheep in the scam-baiting community.
"He's kind of a one-man band," says Jillian Gerard, an administrator of www.scamwarners.com, a loose network of online volunteers who try to warn potential victims. She's also active on one of the biggest and best-known baiter sites, www.419eater.com, which boasts a forum of more than 22,000 registered users.
"He's trying to do it all himself, without the support and expertise of the larger community," she says. "Some practices he does we don't agree with, but I do applaud his enthusiasm."
They might differ on the details, but Kinsella and Gerard are aligned on one thing: 419 scams are a public threat. Many victims, Gerard says, never admit to getting fleeced because they're embarrassed. In 2007 the median loss among those who reported one to the FBI was just under $2,000 per individual. "You should care when stupid people lose their money to scammers," Kinsella insists, "because that's untaxed money."
The Federal Trade Commission collects fraud complaints from the local, state and federal levels. Their data have revealed that a combined 71,373 Americans complained of 419 scams in 2007 and 2008.