Many of us have seen James Veitch’s comedic YouTube videos of him interacting with email scammers. Today’s guest shares how he helps real-world victims of those scams and he has participated in taking down criminal enterprises.
Wayne May is the owner of scamsurvivors.com. He began as a scam baiter in 2005 before concentrating and helping the victims of scams. Scam Survivors was created in 2012 by Wayne along with a small group of like-minded volunteers. He has appeared in the media worldwide as well as being a guest speaker at the IDate conferences discussing romance scams.
Wayne shares his many experiences working with email scams, sextortion, and romance scams. We also discuss specific things you can look for when receiving a spammy email and how to research and check it out for yourself. Awareness and education are the keys to helping more people.
- [01:01] – He created the Scam Survivors website fifteen years ago when he was looking for something fun to do.
- [01:52] – He started as a scam baiter and fell into working with romance scammers. People would write to him and ask for his help.
- [02:41] – He went from having fun with scammers to really helping the people who were being scammed or thought they were being scammed.
- [03:57] – When receiving a scammy email a scam baiter would write back and ask for more details instead of deleting the email. Then you can post the information online to warn other people.
- [05:41] – It is important to get the scammer information out there so the public can find it.
- [07:21] – Wayne isn’t seeing a lot of new scams. Instead, he is seeing variations of old scams.
- [08:07] – The first step in getting the site taken down is to get as much information as you can from the scammer. He then sends all the information to the hosting company in the hope that they will take down the site.
- [10:41] – Wayne shares about the horrible sextortion situations he has seen.
- [13:39] – Wayne shares other experiences dealing with minors.
- [13:58] – You don’t give scammers money.
- [16:57] – He hopes that they have so much success that all the scammers stop. In reality, they hope to get more people involved and educate more people.
- [17:45] – Wayne’s site has a forum where you can share spam emails and they will check them out for you.
- [19:08] – They try to get as much information as possible because then they can do more about it. You need their email address, not just their name.
- [20:19] – The emails are often repeated because they are scripts.
- [20:52] – People can do the same checks and searches they do at home.
- [22:02] – One telltale sign is inconsistency in language or grammar.
- [23:01] – As soon as anyone asks for money you know it is a scam.
- [25:17] – He does not use cash baiting because you are not getting the scammers money you are actually getting some other victim’s money.
- [26:38] – Wayne has a book called The Stupid Scammer Files where he shares the stupid things that scammers say.
- [27:31] – Wayne shares some examples of stupid things scammers have said.
- [30:15] – If you get these emails, come to their website and post them to help other people that don’t realize it is a scam.
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Can you give me some background on how you started the Scam Survivors website?
Pretty much 15 years ago, I was just looking for something fun to do. I went on to Google, typed in “funny,” went to a site, looked at what was on there, clicked the link to another site, and so on and so forth. It took me to this thing: what operating system are you? It's one of these stupid quizzes. I did the quiz and did whatever it said and then it said would you like to see what Nigerian spam you are? Okay, never heard of this before, so I typed it in, came up with some name, I googled the name, and discovered scambaiting. I spent probably six or seven hours reading the stories and laughing my head off at it. I thought, “These guys are idiots. These scammers are so incredibly stupid.” I'm a fairly intelligent person. I reckon I could have some fun with these.
I started off as a scam baiter and fell into dealing with romance scammers purely by accident. I was dealing with these scammers and somebody would write to me and say, “Would you help us? Our relative is being scammed right now. They're convinced it's real. Would you be willing to speak to this scammer, pretend to be a victim so we can prove to them that they are a scammer, they’re not real?” This took a few months after I started doing this and I started speaking to more and more people. I kind of realized messing with scammers is fun, but there is so much more I can do to help people who have been the victims of scams.
My priorities changed from just having fun with scammers—I still have fun with scammers, don't get me wrong, but it's now a lot less important than it used to be. It went from having fun with a scammer to actually helping the people who were being scammed or who thought they were being scammed. Helping to stop people from being scammed. This went on for a few years, and I gathered a group of people around me who I trust completely. They are very like-minded with me as well.
We said, “Well, let's make our own site. Let's do things the way we feel it should be done because not every site we go on is doing things the right way. Not every site is doing things the way we feel it's the right way.” We said we'll make our own site. They lumbered me with the task of doing it. I went on and I bought the site name, put up a very simple front page, put up a forum, and it went from there. It's grown and grown ever since.
That's an amazing story. I've had some of those similar experiences myself. Can you tell me a little bit more what scambaiting is and tell the audience about that?
Scam baiting is when you receive a 419 email trying to get you $1.10 million, $1.5 million. Typically, you get this, you delete it, or you send a reply back to the scammer with two words telling you to basically go forth and procreate. What a scam baiter would do is write back and say, “Oh, really? Can you tell me more?” The scammer will write back to you, then you write back to him and you waste his time, and you get that information as much as you can. You post it up online to warn other people.
You try to get them to do silly things. For example, if you call them up, you might get them to sing a song, you might get them to hold up a sign with something funny on it. I'm Welsh, in case you can't tell by the accent. There’s a phrase in Welsh which is ach-y-fi. It had no literal translation. It’s basically if you've stepped in something nasty on the side of the road you go, “Ugh, ach-y-fi.” I had a scammer to hold up a sign that said ach-y-fi. I had scammers put underwear on their heads. I thought that was a funny thing at the time.
We would phone up scammers as well because if they give you that phone number, you have free rein to phone them up. We've done so many things with them for a number of years now where we phone up and we play these scenarios out in front of them. They have no clue that they're a part of this improv comedy, I guess. You come in and we'll just see if the scammer says something funny, we will go off on that tangent.
For example, a scammer once said, “If I'm lying to you, I will kill myself.” We’ve jumped to that, “Oh my god, he's going to kill himself.” We were on suicide watch. We told him we were going to phone up the police to come to his house because we didn't want him to kill himself. It just becomes this ridiculous comedy, like a farce as such. But again, that's all fun doing that.
I’ll also get the scammer information out there so the public could find him as well. Because the scammers are using scripts. All emails you receive are pre-written. If you get one of them, post it up. Come to scamsurvivors.com. We have a forum, you can post them up there, and get that out so other people are warned as well. There's that side of it, but it's also the fun side of it. That's, in a nutshell, what scambaiting is.
I have done that at some point in my life as well. As I was just telling you earlier, I had sent them a request to hold up a sign that had my “name” on it, which was “I am” and then the last name was “a criminal.” I got at least one or two guys to hold up a sign basically saying I'm a criminal. I'm like thank you.
Yeah, they will. If they’re that desperate they will.
Like you said, they're working off of scripts. They don't necessarily know English well enough. Once you throw a few letters around and it gets out of context they don't know what they're saying or doing.
It's the same with the names that we use. My main scam baiting character is—I'm not going to say the name, but I will say that if you look up the program Due South, Leslie Nielsen's character. His character in Due South is one of my dating names. They have no idea.
It's always fun when you've got the inside joke and they don't.
Yes. Oh, very much so.
But there's definitely a really serious side to what's happening because people actually do fall victim to these types of scams. Are there any new emerging scams that you're seeing in the last six months or so that prior to the six months you hadn't seen?
It's not so much new scams, it's variations of old scams. Right now, with the coronavirus thing going on, the Cameroonian scammers, who would typically be pretending to sell pets or medications, have now got all these websites up claiming to sell the face masks, keywords for coronavirus. That has jumped in leaps and bounds over the past few weeks. We're dealing with them, we're dealing with hundreds upon hundreds of sites like this at the moment.
You said you were doing things to get sites taken down. How do you guys go about doing that? Because obviously, you don't have the personal ability to take somebody's site down.
How do you get other people to take the sites down?
What we would do is get as much information as we can from the scammer. For example, if they send me an email and that email has a site that they've created just to send out emails, they've paid for that site. If you look in the email headers you can go in and see the reply-to address will be—say, for example, their first one is @yahoo but the reply-to will be @[their site].
You would write to that site and say, “Oh I've had this email. I was told to contact you at this address.” They'll reply back and now you have their email address plus their email headers with all the proof that that site is being used by a scammer, and then you send all that information to the people who are hosting the site, who are hosting the site name. You say, “Look, this is a scammer. Here is all the proof that we have,” because you have to give them absolute proof that it's a scam. You can't just say, “This site’s a scam because I said so.” You have to give them all the information they need. You do that, then you report them.
We also work with a site called AA419 who has a very, very good reputation with site dominance. We share information between the two sites. We would have information on ours, they'd have information on theirs. We could say, “Here’s the information you need. This is proof that it's a scammer.” With that, the host will, hopefully—it doesn’t always happen—but the site owner, the people who are providing the site, will then shut that site down.
I don't think any host wants the reputation of being the go-to company for scammers.
There are some, unfortunately. I won't name them because I don't want to get sued.
Most legitimate companies don't want that reputation. It's not in their interest to be associated with criminal activity, which is good. It wouldn't surprise me if there were hosting organizations actually operated by public organizations.
Yes. There definitely are.
That's unfortunate because those are pretty much impossible to get taken down, I assume.
Pretty much. It's not entirely impossible. It's just very, very difficult, but it can be done if you're very, very lucky.
And you get the right people involved.
Yes. It’s all very well as having information. You have to give that information to the right people. Sometimes, if the wind blows in the right direction, they will shut it down.
Are there some particularly disturbing stories that your people to your website have posted?
We were dealing with sextortion pretty much when it just started. The site was about a month old, and we started dealing with people coming in. Most people know about sextortion now where they will pretend to have a webcam and it's all software doing this. They have footage of a female getting undressed. They'll convince the other person to do this as well and then they send that footage back to them saying, “I have this. If you don't send me this amount of money, then we will send this to all your friends and family.”
Before this was more well-known, we were dealing with a lot of cases where people were coming into us and basically saying, “If this happens, I may as well just kill myself.” There have been instances where people have done it. We've had to spend time with people dealing with that. There was one instance where it was a female, which is an unusual thing for these kinds of scams. But when she was younger, about 14 years old, her boyfriend was living in another state. They were going on a webcam together and they were sexting each other. Unknown to her, he had recorded it.
Eight years later, somebody gets hold of this footage, sends her an email saying, “I've got this footage of you. If you don't send me,” I think it was about $3,000, “I will send this to everybody.” He created a blog site, he put the videos up, he actually sent the link to her younger brother—her brother was only a teenager—and he sent this of her as a 14-year-old to all her family. She had private investigators try to stop this thing. She came in asking for help.
It was incredibly embarrassing because I'm having to look at this footage of her as a minor in a state of undress, so I made sure I kept all the contact details, all the chats that we had explaining that I'm doing this because of this, and I managed to go in and get the site shut down. But while I was doing that, there was another blog site that said would you be interested in this blog as well? It must have been about 3:00 AM in the morning and it had a picture of maybe a 2-year-old girl in a state of undress.
I woke my wife up. I say, “Come downstairs. I want you to witness what I'm doing because I've got to report this account now to get this one shut down as well. If anybody picks up that I've been looking at this site, this is why. It showed me here would you like to try these other sites? I want you to see everything just in case.” I had to go in and report on that one as well. It was having to deal with underage nudity, and it was a very, very difficult thing to have to deal with.
Another instance as well was when I was dealing with the [inaudible 00:13:47] scammers back in my very early days. One of them came on and said—I obviously wasn't paying them any money because you don't give scammers money. She said, “Would you like me to give you a show if you send me money?” I'm like, “No, not really.” “What about if I bring my sister in as well?” She called her sister over, the sister was 8 or 10 years old.
I said, “Look, sit down. Don't do this. Not for me, not for anybody. Don't do this. You're worth so much more than this. Please, don't do it.” Those have stuck with me all these years. It's probably about 12, 13 years ago now. It's the kind of thing that you will never ever forget having to deal with. Just absolutely horrible.
Yeah. I've dealt with a number of people over the years who have lost their life savings to scammers, that they've gone out and gotten a second mortgage on their home and given all the money to the scammers. Here they are in or approaching their retirement age and they have absolutely nothing, they're going to lose their home, and they're going to lose everything that they have because some sleazebag couldn't put their intelligence to some other use other than stealing money from people.
We had a lady in the UK, down in the southwest of England. She sent about £15,000 to this scammer. Sold her car, sold everything, and she was made homeless. It was only through her having such a good family that she actually had somewhere to live. She just lost everything. It's not just monetary loss. It’s either you lose trust in people, or you lose trust in yourself. I dealt with her for a few years. I thankfully got to see her grow again, but when I first saw her, she was like this lost little child. It's a terrible thing to see a person be like. She was such a sweet intelligent person as well. It was like she had just given up. That’s hard to deal with, you know.
It's hard to realize that there are such evil people out there that have no conscience about doing these sorts of things to people.
Yeah. That's unfortunately what we deal with on a daily basis.
What are your future plans for your site? Where would you like to see it grow? What would you like to see it do?
I would like this to go out of business, if I'm perfectly honest.
That’s a great answer.
Yeah, that's what we're aiming for. It's to put ourselves out of business. I say business, we're actually a group of volunteers because we all do this for free. We don't charge anybody to come to the site. We have enough money, thankfully, to pay the site fees, but that's it. I’m not off to buy a new car any time soon, should we say.
We wish that we could have such success that all the scammers stopped, but we know it's not going to happen. In reality, we’re just going to be carrying on doing what we're doing. Hopefully, getting more and more people involved, getting more and more people coming to us and also posting up their scammer details because everybody gets 419 scams.
What we'd like is just to expand on that. Become a much larger organization with more people doing the exact same thing if you're already doing it. There's no way we'd like to become the number one site or anything like that. It's just we want more people to come to us. We want more information to be put out there.
Is there a way—let’s say they receive an email they think is from a scammer—that they can use your site to try to find that out?
Yeah. We have a forum there that you can join, post up, and we will check it for you. We also have information on the site as well. If you go to the front page, you'll see ways to spot 419 scammers, ways to spot romance scammers. But to get that information actually into the public, it needs to be posted on the forum. Even if you don't join the forum, there's a link there with a form you can fill in. You can post the information there and then we will post it on your behalf.
We’re trying to cover as many options as we can.
That will allow people that if they're googling an email address, it might show up in your forum?
Yup, that's the plan. We have everything except one part of the forum, which is if you're not sure it's a scammer, you can post it up there. We can check that, “Oh no, that's not a scammer,” or “Yes, it is a scammer. We’ll now move it to the main part.” That part is hidden from the search engines so people don't get accused of being a scammer and it's showing up on searches. Once we identify it’s a scammer, it's up in the main section.
What are some of the things that you guys do to—when you have someone who's posting something like it just seems a little fishy to me maybe it's a scammer, maybe it's not. I don't want to out someone who's not a scammer. What are some of the things that you guys do to try to make that determination?
We would ask them for as much information as possible because the more we have the better we can do. Their email address, just the name is not good because scammer names are all fake. It could be a genuine person with that name. For example, just this week, I had somebody whose name was Charlie Brown. We ask for the email address and we check the email address if it shows up anywhere. We ask for the email headers if they know how to do it because we can look at the email IP address from the headers and then go to your site and check out and say, “Okay, this person claims to be in this country. The email tells us they're in this country.” We get that proof.
If they have photographs, we'll ask for them. We can do an image search on that to see, “Okay they've stolen the images from this person.” The emails that they send, we can read them, we can check for signs that it's a scammer on that, or we can do searches in the text itself to see if it appears anywhere else. That's why we ask people to post up the emails because the scammers are using these formats. We call them formats—they’re scripts, but they’re known as formats.
Formats, scripts, or templates—all the same thing.
Yes, all the same. We check that format out to see if it has been used before. All the information we get is all checked. Then we come back and say, “Okay, this person is definitely a scammer because this, this, and this,” or “No, they're not a scammer. We checked out and you could see that their site is legitimate. It may have been badly worded, but it's not a scam email.” With the information we get, we have all the checks we can do.
It's all checks that other people can do as well. They could do these themselves because we don't do hacking. We don't do anything like this. It's all typically using things like Google. If you know how to google the right things, then it's usually pretty easy to spot if it’s a scammer or not.
Aside from things that are obvious, like an email address has been used in another scam or exactly matching some other script, are there other telltale signs that you guys see on a regular basis of the scam?
There aren’t. The way that the scammers speak, because the scammers will typically come from certain parts of the world. Different kinds of scams will come from particular places. For example, the ones that are going on right now with the coronavirus, they're only Cameroon. The sextortion is in Morocco, Ivory Coast, and the Philippines. All these people speak in a certain way. If somebody's on the dating site, for example, claims to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed female from Texas, and they say Jennifer by name, that is a big red flag because that is not how a Texan would speak.
A Jennifer from Texas would speak.
Yes. By name, by profession, and the only child of my parents—these are signs that the person whose writing is actually from West Africa. It’s things like this we look out for as well. I put up two pictures and the two pictures of two different people because they assumed that they look the same, they might be the same person. We look for that. Other signs are somebody who's American. The scammers just think Native American because they assume that Native American means American. They would say, “No, I’m Native American.” There are these little words, little phrases, that they use that even if the script had never been used before, you can tell by looking at these things that it’s a scammer.
It's things that a person from that part of the world would never say.
Yes. The other thing as well is the obvious money request. As soon as anybody asked for money—ding, ding, ding. You know it’s a scam.
I've dealt with a number of people that, surprisingly, they were dealing with the scammers for six months before the money request came in, which really surprised me because most of my interactions with the scammers, it's two or three emails in. It’s, “I love you. You’re the most amazing person in the world. Oh, and I need money for x, y, and z.”
Yeah. Some of the romance scammers will profile a person. They'll send them a list of questions to find out what their likes, what their dislikes are, and what little chink in their armor they can go for. Because they're talking to maybe dozens of people at the same time, they can string them along until they feel that they’re right and then they'll ask for the money. Others are pretty stupid. I had one, I spoke to him for an hour, and then he sent me an email asking for $500. I think it was for sanitary pads for the month.
You speak to them for an hour then you get this thing: “Yeah, I need this.” It's ridiculous. The problem is, most of the time you see these things in the media. It's those ones that the people are talking about because they are the obvious ones. They are the ones who are most likely to be scam-baited or most likely to ring the alarm bells for somebody and they then said, “Look, this person's a scammer,” and maybe contacted the media. But it's those ones who take their time and work at really hammering at that person. Maybe stop them from talking to their friends, depriving them of sleep, or leaving them so confused they don't know what's up what's down anymore and then doing the money request. Those are the ones that don't get talked about anywhere near enough.
Have you ever been able to get a scammer to front money to you?
No and we never would either. It used to be a thing called cash-baiting where people were doing this but it's really frowned upon these days because we know where that money is actually coming from. The scammer isn't sending the money. He's persuading somebody else to send the money to you. You're not getting a scammer’s money. You’re getting some poor victim’s money. No, we don't and we wouldn't.
It's almost very similar to someone being a money mule.
Yes. Exactly the same kind of thing where instead of them sending it to maybe another victim to convince them that the scam is real, they’re sending it to you instead. Things like that are generally looked down upon these days. We just don't do it.
That's pretty wise. I've never tried to do it. I've always read stories about people doing it, but I had never really put two and two together that really, probably, it’s not the scammer’s money but some other victim’s money being sent.
Yeah, that's the thing. You see it. In the media, there are these stories where somebody has hacked a computer scammer or has the scammer send them money. The media loves it. People like myself, we have to really hate it because it's not what we do, and it's not what we want other people to do. Just because they are scammers doesn't mean that we should break the law.
It's probably illegal to be doing that anyway.
I know that you have just written a book called The Stupid Scammer Files book. Can you tell me about that book?
Basically, when we get a scam, I like to read through it and find out stupid little things that they say. If you go to stupidscammers.com—that’s the other site that I run—it is just a list of these things. I've written other books as well for other sites with the same premise, but this is the first one I've done completely for Scam Survivors. You have a subject and we discuss the kind of things that they said about that subject. I like things when they say “Hello sweaty” instead of “Hello sweetie.” It's this kind of thing.
If I look away one second and I go to stupidscammers.com, I can give you some examples then straight away. The last one I had was from Mr. Sherman Oaks.
That’s not too far from me.
Even I know that's not a person and that’s a place name. We are the proud winner of the British Jack Pulitzer lottery. These kinds of things are economical and financial crime commission rather than economic and crime. It's these kinds of things we look for. When we spot them, I put them up on the site. I make a note of them. The Stupid Scammer Files is a collation of about eight years’ worth of that plus some chapters as well in there to actually educate people because it can't all be fun. We have to give you a little bit of education at the same time.
I explain various common scams and how they work. They’re saying to look out for that as well.
Even now when I read it, and I see things, I still laugh at it. I’ve been looking at this thing for eight years. These things still catch me.
I was just reading one. “I'm George Berry from Bolton, Northern England, hence I'm a widower.” Did all the women there die?
It's when you read through these sorts of things you start seeing the consistent grammatical…
Yeah. I wouldn't put up a simple spelling mistake because a simple spelling mistake isn't funny. If it's a spelling mistake that gives it a different meaning, and that's a funny meaning, then I'll put it up rather than “post script,” I've put up “post scrotum.” It's that kind of thing. You can't be looking for these and while I'm posting there all these things up on Scam Survivors. I'm looking for these little nuggets as well. They can post up Stupid Scammers. Plus, if you go to Stupid Scammers—which we’ll also put up links to some of the calls we’ve done—some of the calls we’ve done you couldn't put it in a book, but if you listen to them they are absolutely ridiculous.
I'd love to have fun—a book and a CD full of the calls as well as like a double back. That would be the perfect thing for me.
You have to do the Audiobook version.
Yes, but not many people would buy it with my accent, unfortunately. I can't afford somebody to pay to read them out.
That is hilarious. Wayne, I super appreciate you coming on the Easy Prey podcast. We'll definitely add a link to The Stupid Scammer Files book on Amazon and a link to your website. I really appreciate the work that you're doing to try to educate people and raise awareness of the scams. That you're trying to take a bite back.
I'm glad to get the opportunity. Please remember, if you get these emails, come to us, post them up to help, and help warn other people. You may know it's a scam, other people may not. I may save somebody from losing their life savings.
That's a great point to always post the script, post the template, post the email address. That way, when someone else searches for it, they can easily see that it's a scam. They don't have to do a whole lot of hunting and digging—they’ve already figured it out.
Again, thank you very much. I really appreciate your time.
Take care. Bye-bye.