There's an odd battle building in the dark alleys and byways of the Internet, being fought by diverse characters such as Dr. Sigmund Freud, Kris Kringle, the late Princess Margaret, a German-Hungarian gypsy called Hans Gneesunt-Boompsadazi, a Chinese restaurateur called Hu Flung Dung, and the Patagonian Liberation Front.
Despite their seeming dissimilarity, all these characters, and many more like them, are on the same side. Their opponents, who according to one Web site now number 3,011 individuals and 451 companies, are the perpetrators of the so-called Nigerian 419 scams, an Internet-based fraud scheme which has allegedly bilked Westerners of hundreds of millions of dollars, and even resulted in murder.
The scam, an online version of the 1920s "Spanish Prisoner" scam, offers the victim a share of several millions of dollars for help in transferring the money out of a country (usually Nigeria or Ghana). Whichever way the scam is pitched, the sting comes when the victim is persuaded to advance several thousand dollars to clear attorney's fees before the big money is released. Of course, the advance fee is never seen again, nor are the scammers, who use fake names and e-mail addresses. A scam can always be identified from the first scammer letter, which for some reason always contains the obscure word "modalities."
As the scam has grown, so has the anti-scam community. Several Web sites detail the efforts of Kringle, Freud, Dr. E. Koli and a host of others to delay, frustrate, harass, misdirect and generally discombobulate the Nigerian scammers (who are popularly known as the Lads from Lagos).
One anti-scam crew, the Chaos Project, even managed to take over the Lads' own fake banking Web site and now use it to host anti-scam material. Some intrepid explorers have induced Lads to unwittingly pose for webcam photographs, others have arranged to meet Lads in various distant locations and not turned up, and have even extracted a few dollars from scammers as up-front trust money.
In what is regarded as the Titanic of the genre (at www.scamorama.com), three bogus explorers called Captain Stabbin, Lonslo Tossov and Ilichy Miracsky, in their equally fictitious boat "The Lucky Lad", kept a gang of Lads on the run for several months with clowning exploits describing their supposed passage up and down the West African coast, failing to meet the Lads on several occasions for a variety of improbable reasons.
Eventually the good captain pulled the plug on the reverse scam, informing the lads in no uncertain terms that they were "mugus" -- a word used in Nigeria to denote an utter idiot.
Despite the humour and the horseplay, the Chaos Project insists that these activities -- which include hacking Web mail accounts set up by the Lads, are serious.
"It's important to remember what's going on here: this is not a case of idle Western sophisticates making childish fun of simple African tribesmen. These people are, quite simply, outright criminals. There is only one reason why they engage in conversation with you: they intend to steal thousands of dollars of your hard-earned money.
"And beyond the millions of dollars they extract annually from gullible (and greedy) victims, news reports strongly suggest that some of those who are foolish enough to be lured to meetings with the fraudsters are robbed, kidnapped, and even murdered."
Security vendor MessageLabs Ltd. -- albeit a company with a vested interest -- recently estimated that 419-type scams will gross US$2 billion in 2003, and rise to become Nigeria's second-biggest industry.
From a broader perspective, though, it is worth asking if this is really what the Internet was intended for. Gangs of scammers, pursued by gangs of reverse scammers, chasing each other round cyberspace, trying to find room between the pornography and the gambling and the spam.
Wasn't the Internet supposed to be a driving force to reduce the digital divide? To enable less-developed trading nations to enter the global market and achieve a measure of prosperity?
Above all, wasn't the global reach of the Internet expected to bring badly-needed educational opportunities to anyone with access to even the most basic electric infrastructure? Perhaps. But that's also what was said in the 1940s about television.
We seem to be able to develop these powerful technologies but not have the sense to use them properly. Maybe it's not just the Lads from Lagos who are mugus.