Calvin Huckle is bent over in his swivel office chair like he's going to vomit. His e-mail message, recited back to him in his living room in New Athens, Illinois, has him choking with laughter.
He sent the e-mail in April 2008 to a West African businessman, Dr. Lewis Jerome, which explained why a $3,000 wire transfer never arrived after months of negotiation.
The real reason that I did not send the money was not because I did not have it — it was because I was too busy fucking your mother. Normally I don't fuck skanky West African whores like your mother — but she was VERY accommodating...Of course the $5 bill that I paid your mother with was a worthless fake — just like you. LOL!
Please send me your office address and perhaps you and I can revive our failed partnership.
— Calvin Huckle
P.S. Tell your mom I said "Hi."
Clearly, the "partnership" never came to fruition. During the four months that led up to the vulgar missive, "Dr. Jerome" and his cohorts were offering Huckle $12 million to invest in American businesses on their behalf. They promised that Huckle could share in the profits.
Jerome claims he gave the $12 million in cash to a diplomat who carried it on a flight to Toronto. Jerome asked Huckle to speed $3,000 to a courier in Canada who would collect and hand-deliver the loot to Huckle. Translation: You'll get your money, Huckle, if you send us a little in advance.
Jerome's ruse is but one variation on the widespread e-mail swindle known as "advance-fee fraud" or a "419 scam" — so named for Article 419 of the Nigerian criminal code concerning fraud. Most of these scams originate in West Africa and have been cluttering inboxes over the past decade, claiming an increasing number of victims worldwide.
"It's only getting worse with the economy the way it is," says Terrill Caplan of Fraud Aid, a national nonprofit providing support and guidance for scam victims. In the past year, says Caplan, Fraud Aid has received more than 100,000 reports of scam e-mail from people in the United States and Canada.
Since the economy began to unravel last fall, such reports have increased by nearly 25 percent, and the number of victims has shot up by about 11 percent. Says Caplan: "More people are grasping at straws than ever before."
But as Dr. Jerome learned too late, Huckle is neither grasping at straws, nor is he a naïve sucker. He wants his inbox cluttered with scam offers.
Calvin Huckle is actually the alias employed by Illinois native Paul Kinsella, a 37-year-old father of two and a full-time "scam-baiter."
Scam-baiters like Kinsella float their contact information on the Internet, hoping to hook an e-mail scammer. Once a scammer bites, Kinsella reels him in slowly, squandering as much of the huckster's time and money as possible. He then catalogues the whole process — called a "bait" — on his website, www.419hell.com.
In baiting Jerome, for example, Kinsella lured him into typing 46 e-mails and making sixteen long-distance calls from West Africa. All the while, Jerome thought he was closing in on his prey. But after four months he had nothing to show for it, other than some salacious insights on his own mother.
"Ahh," Kinsella sighs with satisfaction as he recalls the e-mail. He runs a hand over his scrubby brown hair and looks to the ceiling through large-frame tinted glasses. "I must've spent hours coming up with the perfect mother insult."
On the phone, Paul Kinsella never sounds aggressive with scammers. His voice always assumes the raised pitch of a nice young man chatting with a stranger. On this March afternoon, dressed in a plaid golf shirt that's tucked into straight blue jeans, a smiling Kinsella hardly seems the type capable of authoring the blistering e-mail he sent to Dr. Jerome.
This kind of e-mail is what baiters call a "burn." It is the gotcha message that comes at the end of a bait, letting the scammer know he's been counter-scammed. Some of Kinsella's "burns" and other baiting techniques have made him a bit of a black sheep in the scam-baiting community.
"He's kind of a one-man band," says Jillian Gerard, an administrator of www.scamwarners.com, a loose network of online volunteers who try to warn potential victims. She's also active on one of the biggest and best-known baiter sites, www.419eater.com, which boasts a forum of more than 22,000 registered users.
"He's trying to do it all himself, without the support and expertise of the larger community," she says. "Some practices he does we don't agree with, but I do applaud his enthusiasm."
They might differ on the details, but Kinsella and Gerard are aligned on one thing: 419 scams are a public threat. Many victims, Gerard says, never admit to getting fleeced because they're embarrassed. In 2007 the median loss among those who reported one to the FBI was just under $2,000 per individual. "You should care when stupid people lose their money to scammers," Kinsella insists, "because that's untaxed money."
The Federal Trade Commission collects fraud complaints from the local, state and federal levels. Their data have revealed that a combined 71,373 Americans complained of 419 scams in 2007 and 2008.
During roughly the same two-year period, the Secret Service — the government's lead agency combating 419 advanced-fee fraud — reported just 27 scammer arrests, 17 of them overseas.
Federal officials say that a modest loss to an e-mail fraudster who operates outside U.S. jurisdiction may never register a blip on the radar screen of law enforcers and prosecutors.
"I'm very critical of law enforcement. They don't do anything," says Kinsella. "They've told me they don't have the resources or budget, but that's just another way of saying they don't care. I will volunteer my time, I will bring them the scammers on a silver platter, all [law enforcers] have to do is get off their ass and show up."
When asked what fuels his own passion for baiting, Kinsella refers to his website's motto: "Being a jerk...to those who deserve it."
"You can't be mean to people in real life," he explains, "especially if they don't deserve it. But I like being a jerk. It's a rush of adrenaline, a giddy sense of satisfaction."
Lately, though, his focus has shifted from thrill-seeking to rescuing victims. For months he's been duping a scam artist named "Mikel Bolton" into sharing victim contact information.
As he collects names, Kinsella reaches out to these potential victims and tries to warn them. He now claims to have contacted 26 marks, and successfully prevented 14 of them from getting bamboozled.
One elderly victim in Beaufort, South Carolina, has become a mild obsession of Kinsella's. The man has already forked over tens of thousands to scammers, and even after hours of phone conversation, Kinsella can't stop him.
"He's a chronic victim," Kinsella says, shaking his head in frustration. "If you care about people, you know — this is going to ruin his life."
Kinsella goes on: "If I could convince him to stop giving money to scammers, I would give up my website," he says, "because his life is going to be ruined, and we're all going to have to pay for his welfare checks."
Advance-fee fraud e-mails are the modern equivalents of the "Spanish Prisoner" letters supposedly sent to English gentry in the 1500s. Those letters spun yarns of a wealthy Englishman rotting in a Spanish prison, and pleaded for money for his rescue. Assistance, it was promised, would be richly rewarded upon his release — though it never was, for the prisoner never existed.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s when 419 letters, according to the U.S. State Department, began to emanate from Nigeria, around the time world oil prices were dropping. With their economy in turmoil, some Nigerians — including university professionals with a command of English — started sending scam pitches via snail mail and fax machines to the developed world.
When e-mail became more widely accessible, the con men took to cyber cafés around Lagos and invaded that realm, and not just with advanced-fee fraud.
Charity scammers, for one, now request funds to erect a new church or feed child refugees. Then there are the so-called romance scammers who will pose as an attractive American on a dating site, cultivate a relationship with a lonely mark, then report that they've run into trouble and need money fast.
Kinsella has baited crooks just like these. In fact, he once convinced a romance scammer named "Sweet Candy" to arouse him on the phone by bleating like a goat. In the recording posted on his site, you can hear Kinsella's one-year-old daughter yipping in the background.
He says he prefers advance-fee fraudsters, though, because "there's more to talk about." Some proposals do appear legitimate: Kinsella has been informed he's won a lottery, or qualifies for a loan.
Certain "lads" — a baiter term for West African male scam artists — invite him to break the law.
For example, a lad will report that a wealthy Nigerian has died, and his vast estate is about to get confiscated by the government. But if Kinsella (fraudulently) passes himself off as the rich man's next of kin, the lad can transfer the inheritance to Kinsella in the United States, where it will be safe. Kinsella can then keep some of it for himself, and wire back what's left over.
In effect, the lad is asking Kinsella to commit fraud (i.e., claiming to be someone he's not). Terrill Caplan at Fraud Aid estimates that about 30 percent of victims get swindled while agreeing to conspire in some kind of illegal activity. Jim Bonhert of the Secret Service's field office in St. Louis says he, too, has encountered many victims who've acted as accomplices.
"A lot of times," Bonhert observes, "when you start talking to the people, you say, 'You really didn't do an honest thing yourself; it was based on your greed.'"
Edwin Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., says, "If we have a significant loss in the U.S., or in a country where we can get a successful prosecution, we'll work the case."
Bonhert agrees, but notes that a victim posting a loss of only a few thousand dollars might not meet the threshold required for the U.S. attorney to prosecute. And even if a loss is heavy, he says, most 419 perpetrators operate overseas — outside the Secret Service's jurisdiction.
"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?"
Several scammers actually responded. One of them, assured he'd earn $150 for doing so, wrote: "Yes, it is because in the olden days, the white man used black man to obtain there qualities, I mean by collecting the treasure items in African, especially west African...I mean salve [sic] trade."
Kinsella posted this response on 419hell, then added his own commentary: "White people, from 100 years ago are responsible for your deplorable behavior today!?! Wow...that's fucking pathetic."
Another baiting tradition that Kinsella enjoys is called the "trophy." It is a photo that a baiter requests a scammer take of himself. Typically, it features the scammer engaged in some bizarre activity, such as balancing a dead fish on his head, or holding a sign that reads, "I like enema fudge."
One of Kinsella's trophies is featured on the FAQ page of 419hell. The photo shows about twenty Africans around a banner that that says: "Frequently Asked Questions."
Next to the banner stands "Pastor Isaac" of Nigeria, with his parishioners. Isaac has written several e-mails, now posted on 419hell, with updates on a new building he's constructing at the behest of an American congregation. The project's benefactor asked him to set up the photo.
The benefactor's name? None other than Calvin Huckle of the Holy Orc Church.
Some baiters frown upon Kinsella's antics.
The forum sections of scam-baiting sites often host lengthy debates on what's ethical and what's not. But, notes Jillian Gerard at 419eater, the general consensus is against "burning" scammers.
"In the larger scheme, it doesn't help the cause," she says. "It only serves to educate the scammer. We don't tell the scammers they've been baited — ever."
Kinsella believes both approaches have merit. "At 419eater and ScamWarners, they always want the scammer to be scratching his head," he says. "But I think burning hurts their ego; it brings them down a peg. And the entertainment value is so high."
Kinsella has encouraged victims to become accomplices in his baits, which, says Gerard, ScamWarners would never do. "The scammer has their real information," she says. "If the scammer gets real mad, it's just not safe."
He also posts conversations with victims on his site without their consent. The mere mention of one particular victim — James J. Hill of Beaufort, South Carolina — draws a physical reaction from Kinsella.
"It's like, 'Come on, dude!'" he groans, thrusting both fists to his forehead. "I will bet my whole life savings that you'll not convince him that some of these guys are fake."
Hill is a 75-year-old retired Navy pilot on military disability pension. In the last couple years, he says, scammers have drained much of it. His wife, Joline, says her husband is on medication, which she thinks impairs his judgment.
Hill says he was swindled out of $100,000 a few years ago after being contacted by someone claiming to be the son of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Now, he claims to have partnered with a Danish brigadier general in the United Nations' peacekeeping forces by the name of Gorson. Though the two have never met, Hill claims they have plans to start a private security-training school.
Just months ago, adds Hill, scammers intercepted their e-mail correspondence and swiped $30,000 out of his bank account. "Gorson was mad at me for it, but he's not a scammer. He's a commissioned general and a fine officer."
Kinsella, under the alias of "Frank Jackson," has spent hours trying to convince Hill that "General Gorson" doesn't exist. Some of these conversations are posted on 419hell.
"I'm amazed that someone could be so deeply in denial about something that is so obvious to any other human being," Kinsella says.
But Hill won't budge. "I like Frank, and I appreciate what he's doing," Hill says. "But there's a lot of it he calls scams that aren't scams!"
Meanwhile, Ari Gaitanis, a public-affairs officer at the United Nations, says no one holding senior positions in the field is from Denmark or has the last name of Gorson.
Since starting up 419hell, Paul Kinsella has received at least four death threats.
The site's testimonials page showcases the furious rants of scammers he's burned — or, as Kinsella terms them, "people whose lives we've touched." He's been called a "fool," a "son of a beast" and a "white dirty stinking pig."
One lad told Kinsella that he appealed to an "African witch doctor" and "Amadioha, the god of revenger" to bring about Calvin Huckle's death. The West African scammer wrote: "I am going to deal with you spiritual," and vowed to speed things along by purchasing a "she African native cow" to sacrifice to the "Okija Shrine."
None of this fazes Kinsella. "The chances that I'd be in danger are minimal," he says. "If something requires a lot of effort on their part, I don't think they'll do it. They're pretty lazy."
As far as the future goes, Kinsella is thinking about creating a private detective agency called "Bully-Busters." Its mission: to shoot real-life footage of schoolyard bullies, in the hope of getting the bully expelled. In the interim, it's full-steam ahead for the master baiter at 419hell.
"There's an unlimited supply of guys to go after," he says. "You'll never run out. You could do this your whole life and never meet the same scammer twice."