By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By RFT Staff
By Keegan Hamilton
By Gavin Cleaver
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
"We do have a liaison with local authorities in Nigeria, but it's very, very difficult to get anything accomplished," says Bonhert. "You're relying on the local authorities to do your investigating for you. A lot of times they don't have the time or manpower or knowledge of what's going on to effectively do that."
Six thousand miles away from Lagos, Nigeria, in the flat emptiness of the Mississippi River Valley, is the one-story home of Paul and Tabatha Kinsella. It sits on the edge of New Athens, a sleepy rural town south of Belleville.
Their living room serves as the nerve center of 419hell. Here, the most prominent feature is a wide pinewood table against the wall, with two large computer monitors. Above that, a pair of telephones is mounted to desk shelves.
On a recent afternoon, against the backdrop of a Wandering Jew plant that sprawls across the house's large front window, Kinsella is trying to explain the contorted counter-scam he's been running on con man Mikel Bolton.
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave," Kinsella says with a sly grin.
He's expecting a call any minute from Bolton. Scotch-taped to the top edge of one monitor is a piece of paper reminding him which character he's playing today, and which fake address he's going to employ.
At one time, Kinsella says, he was running twenty baits simultaneously. His wife recently asked him to cut back. But he's held on to Mikel Bolton. "Oh, I love him dearly," he says. "He is going to freak. I have so totally screwed him over."
Last July Kinsella began posing as a West African con man named Wad Oga. Bolton suggested to Wad that they start scamming together, and shared with him some victim contacts — exactly what Kinsella wanted.
Soon, Bolton grew distrustful of Wad. So he sent Wad additional names, but this time, attached them to fake e-mail addresses that Bolton himself had set up. Now Bolton could spy on what Wad was communicating to their shared marks.
Kinsella noticed the mismatch between the names and e-mail addresses, because some of these victims were actually personas he'd fabricated. Now Kinsella wants to convince Bolton that Wad is trustworthy enough to share victims.
To do that, Kinsella will pose as "Oliver Brown," a new victim. Brown will report that, in recent conversations, Wad has never spoken ill of Bolton or tried to do deals on the side. This way, Bolton will feel reassured that it's business as usual for the scamming partners.
"Complexity is the means to the end," Kinsella says. "If I could do it more simply, I probably would."
When the phone finally rings, Kinsella slings himself out of his chair and clicks his mouse to record the proceedings. The conversation crackles out of computer speakers. As the two converse, the scammer, who has a deep voice and thick African accent, grows testy.
Scammer: "What else you need from me? What you saying here?"
Kinsella: "Well, the passport you sent me shows that you're a white person."
There's a pause.
Scammer: "Don't ask me too many questions!"
Kinsella says he had problems with bullies when he was a boy. "I got beat up and taunted in school. There were a lot of exclusions," he recounts. "It made my childhood pretty hard."
He took to cartooning in high school and eventually found success: Both the National Review and The Saturday Evening Post have published his work. He even had a daily comic strip in the Belleville News-Democrat for a year. But when his contract wasn't renewed, he turned to the Internet.
"He's come up with some wild ideas ever since we got a computer in '99," says his wife, Tabatha. After stints at Wal-Mart and Value City, Kinsella decided to devote himself entirely to what Tabatha says he calls "Paul's Odyssey."
He posted his cartoons online and then created Stickman Murder Mysteries, an interactive whodunit video game. He also created AfterLifeTelegrams.com, which works like this: For $5 a word, you write a telegram to a deceased loved one. Kinsella then arranges for a terminally ill person to memorize the message and pass it along.
Wallettest.com, his next creation, featured hidden-camera footage of 100 money-filled wallets that Kinsella planted in public places and what people who found them did with them. Both sites have earned him national media attention.
Kinsella says he works full-time as a scam baiter. It is a passion he is able to subsidize, thanks to his wife, who works as a part-time nurse, and from a website, cheappostersearch.com, that earns him $50 a day.
Not long after the shadowy world of scam-baiting began to gain notoriety several years ago, Kinsella launched 419hell, where he now displays his own idiosyncratic style. For example, "Grandpa Huckle" is Calvin's fictitious, senile father, who almost always answers a scammer's phone call but never quite catches the scammer's name. He often thinks it's his pal, Marty, which prompts a tedious clarification. Then Grandpa ambles off to fetch Calvin, consuming another minute of long-distance the scammer must pay for.
Kinsella once convinced a West African scammer that he was a ten-year-old boy with a lisp. This ruse lasted for weeks. He also played a journalist conducting a survey, via e-mail, asking questions such as, "The majority of 419 scammers are from the western and southern parts of Africa? Why is that?"