Thursday, June 4, 2009

Protecting the commons with 'altruistic punishment': scam baiting

Ernst Fehr and his students and colleagues have conducted a broad inquiry into the idea that many public goods may be maintained in part by a widely held motivation to punish transgressors, even when such punishment is costly. It's an idea that has engaged evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists as well, and has generated some controversy.

An example of altruistic punishment in practice is the internet sport of scam baiting: Baiting Nigerian scammers for fun (not so much for profit).
"When your hobby is baiting 419 scammers (also known as Nigerian scammers or advance-fee fraudsters), a death threat isn't cause for concern—it's a trophy worth bragging about to your friends.
Scam baiters are the vigilante enforcers who come together to waste hours, weeks, or months of 419 scammers' lives for nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing that they are distracting them from real victims. Though the world of 419 scams has existed since long before the Internet, people continue to fall for scammers in droves—certainly, scammers are making millions of dollars every year by promising money, goods, and romance that they never deliver on. That's part of why scam baiting has actually become a somewhat popular pastime online, with thousands of users flocking to scam baiting forums to share stories and ideas on how to string along more scammers. And hey, why not? Most of us end up spending too much time screwing around on the Internet anyway—these folks just use that time to make scammers miserable."

If you want to play (the next time you get an email offering to transfer millions of dollars to your account*), one of the central sites seems to be

*For those of you who never look in your junk mail folder, here's a good example from mine:
"Sir / Madam,
I am Barrister Adamu Azeez, an attorney to late Richard Lim a foreigner who is an Engineer with Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) here in Nigeria. Late Mr. Richard Lim has an account with United Bank for Africa Plc, Nigeria.
I received a memo early this year from the Bank Remittance Department for an interview about (US$25.500,000.00) (TWENTY FIVE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS ONLY) that belongs to my client Late Mr. Richard Lim ,the bank informed me on their policy to freeze the account of Late Richard Lim, I am in a position to redirect the (US$25.500,000.00) to any foreigner's account any where because they was no Next of Kin in his entire file within the bank and his account has been dormant for years which is against the policy of the Bank.
I am contacting you because of the need to involve a foreigner as the foreign beneficiary to that fund and also to stand as the Next of Kin to the deceased. I have resolved to share the money in this ratio.
(1) 65% for me.
(2) 30% for you.
(3) 5% for the Remittance Manager in the bank who has agreed to guide us for the success of our objectives.
(4) 5% for any expenses both party might incur during the processing of this transaction.

I will need your full name and address including telephone and fax number for the internal processing of the fund transfer and the internal processing of the required documents to back you up for the claim of the fund in receipt of all the required information from you which was given above. I will give you further details on the entire process when I receive your positive response."

HT: jeff at Cheap Talk

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