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During roughly the same two-year period, the Secret Service — the government's lead agency combating 419 advanced-fee fraud — reported just 27 scammer arrests, 17 of them overseas.
Federal officials say that a modest loss to an e-mail fraudster who operates outside U.S. jurisdiction may never register a blip on the radar screen of law enforcers and prosecutors.
"I'm very critical of law enforcement. They don't do anything," says Kinsella. "They've told me they don't have the resources or budget, but that's just another way of saying they don't care. I will volunteer my time, I will bring them the scammers on a silver platter, all [law enforcers] have to do is get off their ass and show up."
When asked what fuels his own passion for baiting, Kinsella refers to his website's motto: "Being a jerk...to those who deserve it."
"You can't be mean to people in real life," he explains, "especially if they don't deserve it. But I like being a jerk. It's a rush of adrenaline, a giddy sense of satisfaction."
Lately, though, his focus has shifted from thrill-seeking to rescuing victims. For months he's been duping a scam artist named "Mikel Bolton" into sharing victim contact information.
As he collects names, Kinsella reaches out to these potential victims and tries to warn them. He now claims to have contacted 26 marks, and successfully prevented 14 of them from getting bamboozled.
One elderly victim in Beaufort, South Carolina, has become a mild obsession of Kinsella's. The man has already forked over tens of thousands to scammers, and even after hours of phone conversation, Kinsella can't stop him.
"He's a chronic victim," Kinsella says, shaking his head in frustration. "If you care about people, you know — this is going to ruin his life."
Kinsella goes on: "If I could convince him to stop giving money to scammers, I would give up my website," he says, "because his life is going to be ruined, and we're all going to have to pay for his welfare checks."
Advance-fee fraud e-mails are the modern equivalents of the "Spanish Prisoner" letters supposedly sent to English gentry in the 1500s. Those letters spun yarns of a wealthy Englishman rotting in a Spanish prison, and pleaded for money for his rescue. Assistance, it was promised, would be richly rewarded upon his release — though it never was, for the prisoner never existed.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s when 419 letters, according to the U.S. State Department, began to emanate from Nigeria, around the time world oil prices were dropping. With their economy in turmoil, some Nigerians — including university professionals with a command of English — started sending scam pitches via snail mail and fax machines to the developed world.
When e-mail became more widely accessible, the con men took to cyber cafés around Lagos and invaded that realm, and not just with advanced-fee fraud.
Charity scammers, for one, now request funds to erect a new church or feed child refugees. Then there are the so-called romance scammers who will pose as an attractive American on a dating site, cultivate a relationship with a lonely mark, then report that they've run into trouble and need money fast.
Kinsella has baited crooks just like these. In fact, he once convinced a romance scammer named "Sweet Candy" to arouse him on the phone by bleating like a goat. In the recording posted on his site, you can hear Kinsella's one-year-old daughter yipping in the background.
He says he prefers advance-fee fraudsters, though, because "there's more to talk about." Some proposals do appear legitimate: Kinsella has been informed he's won a lottery, or qualifies for a loan.
Certain "lads" — a baiter term for West African male scam artists — invite him to break the law.
For example, a lad will report that a wealthy Nigerian has died, and his vast estate is about to get confiscated by the government. But if Kinsella (fraudulently) passes himself off as the rich man's next of kin, the lad can transfer the inheritance to Kinsella in the United States, where it will be safe. Kinsella can then keep some of it for himself, and wire back what's left over.
In effect, the lad is asking Kinsella to commit fraud (i.e., claiming to be someone he's not). Terrill Caplan at Fraud Aid estimates that about 30 percent of victims get swindled while agreeing to conspire in some kind of illegal activity. Jim Bonhert of the Secret Service's field office in St. Louis says he, too, has encountered many victims who've acted as accomplices.
"A lot of times," Bonhert observes, "when you start talking to the people, you say, 'You really didn't do an honest thing yourself; it was based on your greed.'"
Edwin Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., says, "If we have a significant loss in the U.S., or in a country where we can get a successful prosecution, we'll work the case."
Bonhert agrees, but notes that a victim posting a loss of only a few thousand dollars might not meet the threshold required for the U.S. attorney to prosecute. And even if a loss is heavy, he says, most 419 perpetrators operate overseas — outside the Secret Service's jurisdiction.
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