Scamming the scammer

Inside the community of “scambaiters” who confront, fool and expose scammers on the digital frontlines

Published: May 1, 2023

Taylor initially wasn’t sure what to do next. He was grateful that he hadn’t fallen for the scam and given up the camera for nothing. But he was also upset at the fact that a scammer had tried to defraud him.

“I was kind of mad because I know that there are a lot of people around the country that likely do fall for these types of scams,” Taylor said. “I thought that there needed to be more awareness about them. I decided to make a YouTube video about how the scam works and I didn’t think that I’d make many more YouTube videos.”

The video, though, was just the start for Taylor. Since then, he’s taken on the name Pleasant Green and become a popular YouTube scambaiter, a title Taylor says describes a person who pursues scammers to waste their time. In the six years since, he’s posted over 200 videos,  amassed over a million followers and racked up more than 140 million views.

“I seem to run into scammers a lot,” Taylor’s YouTube bio reads. “Most people ignore them. I like to get to know them.”

Scambaiters have built up an online community, largely based on YouTube and online forums like Reddit, of like-minded people who want to expose scammers and waste their time. The way a lot of scambaiters see it, Taylor said, is that the longer he can occupy a scammer by fooling them and leading them on, the less time they have to scam vulnerable people who may fall for the fraud.

Beyond just taking up a scammer’s time, scambaiters have other goals. They’ll often post videos of their exploits on social media – primarily YouTube, though there’s a growing scambaiter community on TikTok – to offer entertaining content. They reach large audiences: scambaiting YouTuber Kitboga boasts 3 million followers, and another called Scammer Payback has 5.7 million followers on his YouTube page. 

Illustration of scammer and scambaiter

Many scambaiters present their videos and content as educational material in the hopes that their viewers will become more educated on online scams to be able to better protect themselves.

“You’re slowing them down, you’re keeping them away from potential victims and you’re frustrating them,” Taylor said. “The more we can do to slow them down and frustrate them, I think the better other people will be.”

In order to find a scammer to bait, Taylor has a couple of options. When he started out, he would bait scammers he encountered in his own email or texts. Now, his followers often send him tips on attempted scams that he can then look into.

His methods for scambaiting are fairly straightforward – he leads the would-be scammer on, and he does it for as long as he can. Taylor always wants to see how far he can take it with the scammer before they catch on. Sometimes, this just means maintaining the conversation with the scammer, which can often last days or even weeks, Taylor said.

Other times, Taylor gets a bit more elaborate. He’s tried to appear more uneducated, used voice changers to try and make himself sound more vulnerable, and even Photoshopped fake money transfers or documents for scammers requesting proof of payment or his identity. 

Once he’s able to get as deep into a scam as possible, sometimes even identifying the associated bank accounts for the scammer, he and other scambaiters take what they’ve learned to law enforcement. Cybercrime investigators like the FBI are overwhelmed with the volume of fraud cases, Taylor said, so scambaiters can sometimes lighten the load.

“A lot of them will have bank accounts or they’ll have contacts in the states that they use to launder money,” Taylor said. “The more information I can uncover, the more able I am to disrupt their scam and the more information I can provide law enforcement. The more stones I can uncover with these scams, the better.”

Scambaiting doesn’t always result in the demoralization or arrest of the scammer. After their loss to a scambaiter, the scammer may simply move on to their next attempted victim. It can also be difficult for authorities to act on evidence sent in by a scambaiter, according to Tom Sorell, a professor at Warwick University in the United Kingdom who studies online fraud and scambaiting.

The more information I can uncover, the more able I am to disrupt their scam.

Many scammers, Sorell said, are based in countries other than that of the scambaiter, and are often in countries that don’t effectively prosecute scams. In these cases, the evidence may be strong but the scammer still may not face any penalty. And, Sorell’s research has shown, scammers often live in countries that are unlikely to prosecute.

“The idea that people in the West might collect evidence, say for a West African jurisdiction, the kind of jurisdiction which contains many, many scammers, I think that kind of enterprise is a little bit forlorn,” Sorell said. “Scammers will have the money to bribe somebody or to pay a fine so they won’t really be punished.”

Nonetheless, Sorrel considers scambaiting a mostly ethical pursuit, even though it requires deceiving a scammer to expose them online. The financial gains of a scambaiter aren’t often significant, since any profit would typically come from affiliate or ad revenue on a social media platform and not the scam itself, he said. 

Rather, scambaiters are often guided by public interest and the goal of minimizing future scam victims, Sorell said. Scams, he said, can devastate their victims, triggering mental health and self-esteem issues in addition to financial loss. One type of scam, romance scams, can be particularly damaging psychologically as victims struggle to move past being tricked into thinking that a nonexistent person loved them.

“There is an ethical justification for (scambaiting), namely that if enough people engage in it, scammers will probably think twice,” Sorell said. “They won’t know whether the people they’re interacting with are actual possible targets for getting money or whether they’re scambaiters.”

Scambaiting isn’t a difficult pastime to pick up, Taylor said. In fact, he thinks it’s something that anyone can do without needing specialized equipment or experience. All someone has to do is waste the time of a would-be scammer.

It’s not without risk, though, and safety measures should be taken. During past scambaiting, Taylor has used personal phone numbers. After the scammers realized what he was doing, they harassed him and shared his information with other scammers who targeted him. 

The pros and cons of scambaiting are something he often thinks about, but he’s also learned ways to minimize the risk – like not using separate devices that aren’t linked to personal accounts or information.

“They are aware of who I am and what I do and it would probably please them to slow me down or shut me down,” Taylor said. “You do kind of put a target on your back when you expose their secrets to the whole world.”

Taylor said he focuses on making content that fosters awareness about online scammers. Before uploading a video to his YouTube page, Taylor always asks himself if there’s something educational or entertaining in the content. If the answer is “no,” then he won’t upload the video.

“I often say that my goal is to put myself out of business because if everybody is aware of these scams, then the scammers will have nothing to do other than go find a real job,” Taylor said. “To me, that would be a victory. But as long as there’s scans and shady offers and just questionable things on the internet, I want to explore them and I want to see what they’re about.”