If there's anyone connected to the Internet at this point who is not familiar with some variation of the Nigerian 419 scam, they're qualified for the Security Watch Ostrich head-in-the-sand prize. Most of us have seen far more of the various 419 scams than common sense can justify.
Well, now there's a welcome addition to the 419 scam story - a new entry in the anti-scam side of the ledger from the 14th Earl of Gypping in the Marsh. We'll return to the Earl after a brief retrospective.
THE 419 SCAM SCENE
The Nigerian 419 scam is close to 20 years old at this point. "419" refers to the part of the Nigerian criminal code that applies to obtaining property through false pretences. However, the theme of the 419 scam goes back centuries, and has nothing to do with Nigeria.
The inspiration dates back to the Spanish Inquisition in what is called "The Spanish Prisoner" scam. The plot unfolded like this: a victim of sufficient means was identified and informed that an anonymous and wealthy individual was imprisoned by the Spanish authorities, and that if the victim would advance the funds to secure the prisoner's release he/she would be abundantly rewarded upon the release. The nature of the reward varied widely over the centuries, appealing to every facet of weak wills.
Over the centuries, various confidence men have used variations on this theme to separate all manner of people from their money. But never was it as efficiently performed as on the Internet. Not only was it easy - it went global overnight and is now one of the common fraud schemes reported on the FBI website - www.fbi.gov/majcases/fraud/fraudschemes.htm.
According to a recent University of Pennsylvania security advisory (http://www.upenn.edu/computing/security/advisories/419scam.html), some common elements modern 419 scam are:
Kind of a spongy set of characteristics to build into a spam filter rule, huh (see my column on spam in the last issue of G&L). In any event, the 419 scam has been global for decades and, as difficult as this may be to believe, effective! Some accounts have suggested that the Nigerian government supports 419 scams as a top-five contributor to their economy (see www.quatloos.com/scams/nigerian.htm). It is also informative to scan through one of several 419 scam galleries, e.g., the "Scam Letter Museum" and the "Nigerian Fraud Email Gallery" .
At this point there is a mind-boggling variety of flavors of the 419 scam, several anti-419 movements recorded on the net, and of course a much awaited, recent entry the 14th Earl of Gypping in the Marsh, to which we now return.
THE CABBAGE CAPITAL OF LINCOLNSHIRE
A simple search will provide an ample list of "anti-419" sites that suggest remedies. However, unlike other scams and swindles that I am familiar with, the anti-419 scam has given rise to a really clever commentator of our social cyber-experience via a content-rich cluster of web pages all wrapped around a delightful series of fictional accounts of life in the bucholic but non-existent town called Gypping in the Marsh, the Cabbage Capital of Lincolnshire. These pages describe the efforts of one courageous, albeit fictitious, anti-419 zealot named Gilbert Murray, the 14th Earl of Gypping, who seeks to out scam the scammers and embarrass them in the process. The combined accounts of the Earl and his exploits in the name of all nameless victims are priceless - especially funny to those with an appreciation of irony.
The story unfolds thusly. One Gilbert Murray, aka the 14th Earl of Gypping, participates in a cornucopia of 419 scams. Gilbert is the pseudonym for a very clever (and funny) anti-419 crusader as the welcome page of his website explains:
"Welcome to scambuster419.co.uk, a website that gives you an insight into the world of the 419 advance fee fraudster. This website contains a wealth of useful information on 419 scams and advance fee fraud. However, most of the website is devoted to a number of email exchanges between "Gilbert Murray" (in a variety of guises) and a range of advance fee fraudsters, all of them desperate to get their hands on his money ... and all of them failing miserably to do so." (www.scambuster419.co.uk)
Figure 1: GIMPS money transfer receipt for the 419 payoff (source: www.scambuster419.co.uk)
This sets the tone for the remaining content of the website. What follows is a series of hilarious exchanges between Gilbert and real 419 scammers. To illustrate, in one such exchange entitled "The Adult Video Director," Gilbert appears as an adult film entrepreneur who not only appears to fall for the 419 email "bait," but along the way lures the unsuspecting female scammer into starring in one of his forthcoming porn films. Along the way, Gilbert seeks to pay the scammer via the not-totally-unreasonable-but-fictitious funds transfer service Guaranteed International Money Provision Service (GIMPS) - Gilbert monitors his bogus electronic exchanges with the Worldwide Automated Banking Intelligence Tracking System (WABITS) administered by Mr. E. Fudd. Of course, GIMPS and WABITS only exist in Gilbert's mind, but he elevates it's status by means of primitive visual aids in the form of plausible-looking, but bogus nonetheless, receipts (see Figure 1). As the stories unfold it becomes pretty evident that this is the stuff of which great comedic experiences are made. If uniqueness and irony are essential ingredients of brilliant humor, Gilbert walks with the giants. Gilbert of Gypping deserves to stand alongside Latka Gravas of Caspiar and Ali G of Staines as a comedic champion of possible worlds.
In another episode, Gilbert becomes a physician who takes the mid-scam opportunity to offer medical advice on the harmful effects of cell phone use on the brain. The pre-arranged money transfer is delayed in this story because of an outbreak of bird flu in a Gypping poultry house. In the exchange entitled "the Vicar" Reverend Gilbert Murray entices the spammer's mother to restore the Vicar's magnificent organ. The plots are intertwined with all of the panache of a time-tested dime store novel.
Gilbert blends the comedic elements of surprise, non-sequiturs, conflict, satire, parody, scatology, and so forth into a delightful commentary of a very real social predicament through the medium of actual email exchanges with 419 scammers. This may be one of the most entertaining websites to come our way in a long while. The Gypping in the Marsh website shines above the sea of web mediocrity in which we are far-too-often immersed.
Figure 2: Map of Gypping on the Marsh (source: www.scambuster419.co.uk)
The entire Gilbert/Gypping in the Marsh experience falls somewhere in the sweet spot betwixt The News from Lake Woebegon, the Fred Dagg Chronicles, and My Name is Earl. It has secured itself nicely in the postmodern web idiom of ironic dyspepsia.
I would be remiss if I concluded this column without mentioning that Gilbert's virtual wife, Elizabeth, reports that he recently disappeared during a virtual trip to Nigeria with his virtual colleague Beaker. Let us take a moment to extend our best wishes to Gil, Liz, Gil Jr. and the entire Murray clan. Our thoughts will be with you 'til a blade of grass becomes an oak, old friend.
Useful links to Gilbert Murray, 14th Earl of Gypping in the Marsh:
By the way, the primary title of this column translates more-or-less into "the 419 scam boss didn't get the money. The victim gets the last laugh." if one relaxes most of the customary semantic conventions of west African dialects especially, but not exclusively, those of nouns and verbs.