Laughing all the way to the bank: My one-week tally of Internet 'lottery winnings'

On Monday of last week, I was just another laid-off guy trying to pay off credit cards and find full-time work. But what a difference a week makes: By Friday, I found myself awash in lucrative overseas job offers ... and rolling in dough as multi-multi millionaire.

Well, at least that's what my spam said.

We've all fielded dozens of those Nigerian scam emails, the creepy ones usually titled "DEAR LOVED ONE." Or: "Congratulations on your lottery prize." Or start off: "I am most humble seeking your assistance with a matter of a great importance." (You don't have to be an English professor to know the grammar gives those ones away.)
But amid this Great Recession -- when most of us must do with less and less -- it seems a cruel irony we all have a surplus of these phony-baloney emails to deal with. And so, I concocted a little experiment: What if, instead of hitting "delete," I actually saved a week's worth of these missives, then tallied up my hypothetical proceeds?

The good news is that I'm way stinking rich, as soon as I figure out how to cash in.

How stinking rich, you might ask?
  • I won $6.3 million in various lotteries, in places as far away as Spain and Australia. I've never been to either place, nor can I speak Spanish or Outback.
  • Was given a "Swift ATM card" with a $1.5 million balance. How come? Here's the reply, in best banker's vernacular: "After and [sic] evaluation with computer permutation and manual records, we have found out that you are among the 50 people that have legally and creditably used ATM and credit card effectively."
  • Got offered a $150 million loan, and up to 25 years to pay it off.
  • Was asked to help transfer almost $141 million in funds from foreign banks on behalf of deceased people. Well, one was almost dead, though she was working hard on it. Here's what she wrote: "Recently, my doctor told me that I have limited days to live due to the cancerous problems I am suffering from, though what bothers me most is the stroke that I have in addition to the cancer."
For some reason, an overwhelming majority of these emails came on a Friday -- more than on all other days combined -- which leads me to believe that there's some connection to the end-of-the-week payday. Of course, you can't get the big lottery prize or proceeds from the funds transfer until you provide valuable financial and personal information first.

And while you and I might find it impossible to believe that anyone actually falls for this stuff, the con artists behind it all play a numbers game based on percentages. That is: They send thousands and thousands of these emails, and even if just a fraction of 1% get a response, that's enough to provide fresh leads for cleaning out someone's bank account.

While counting my mock proceeds and having a laugh was good enough for me, for some that's not enough. Web sites such as www.419eater.com gather together groups of "scambaiters," people who mess with minds and livelihoods of the scam artists. (419 is the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud schemes.)

"It doesn't matter if you are new to this sport or a hardened veteran," the folks behind 419 Eater proclaim on their welcome page. "If you are wasting the time of a scammer or frustrating them in any way, well that's good enough for us, and we would welcome you to join with our now very large community."

Be advised: These 419 Eaters are tight-knit, guard their identities closely, and can play hardball with the scammers. As for their rationale, "For the most part these criminals are not 'poor people trying to scratch a living,' but are indeed very prosperous compared to their law-abiding countrymen, and many operate in highly organized and highly successful criminal gangs."

Calling what they do a "cybersport," the 419 Eaters maintain that by pranking and toying with the folks behind financial scam emails, "much fun can be had and at the same time you will be doing a public service."

In the midst of this, flustered scam artists say and do the darndest things. Many get tricked into posing with signs such as "WELCOME TO THE HALL OF SHAME" to mark pages on the site. And one fellow apparently infuriated with the tactics 419 Eaters who'd gotten the best of him emailed this not-so intimidating threat:

"I will condom you to a painful death." Ouch!

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