At a conference in Maryland – where I’m dropping in for a 24 hour visit – I met Charlie Stross, geek and sci-fi writer extraordinare, who’s responsible for the very excellent (and Hugo-nominated) “Halting State”. I’m a big fan on “near futures” science fiction, books like “Pattern Recognition“, which seize themes in contemporary life and spin them out to logical conclusions, rather than violating the laws of physics to ask interesting conceptual questions.
“Halting State” is a police procedural, the story of Scottish cops and private investigators seeking the truth behind an unusual bank heist, the robbery of a bank charged with regulating the economies of a set of massively multiplayer online games. The story turns into a complex tale about virtual worlds, augmented reality, massively multiplayer games and confusion over motivations. It’s a very good read. The book ends with an email that may or may not be a 419 scam, and I was thrilled to hear Stross talking about the possibility of writing a book focused on online advance fee fraud.
My regular readers may know that I’m somewhat obsessed with 419 – I think 419 is the perfect example of an internet-mediated encounter where both sides misunderstand and attempt to take advantage of the other party. The traditional 419 only works when you assume a nation is so corrupt that millions of dollars in oil profits are sitting around, waiting to be transfered into you account, and where you’re willing to do something illegal to get your share of the gains. (Obviously, other versions of the scheme have emerged which prey less on the recipient’s greed.) I’ve lately been buying the books written by “scambaiters”, those enterprising souls who’ve decided to string along scammers in the hopes of “wasting their time” – unfortunately, there’s very little reflection on the morality of scambaiting in those books, which is really what I’d been hoping for – just lots of accounts of emails flying back and forth.
I mentioned to Stross a new scam I’d become aware of: fraudulent dog sales from Cameroon. Buyers are offered a chance to buy a pedigree’d pooch from an “AKC-certified” breeder in Cameroon – when the sale goes through, the buyer will be asked for additional fees, including travel insurance and vaccination fees. Needless to say, the dog never arrives. Message board posts on this topic make it clear that this is an increasingly common scam, and that lots of people fall for it.
I heard about this scam not because I was dog-shopping, but because my friend Njei Moses Timah has made fighting these scams a personal quest. A proud Cameroonian, he’s upset that Cameroon’s online reputation may be compromised in the same way that Nigeria’s has been. So he’s posting the details of these frauds in the hopes that buyers will read them and beware.
I’m always interested in the ways people try to use blogs and other participatory media to brand their nations and cultures – I see bridgeblogging as the process of trying to change the brand image of your nation, culture, religion or people online. But it’s rare to see someone like Njei Moses engaging in this battle in realtime, trying to take down the cybercrooks who are sullying Cameroon’s reputation.