Have you gotten emails asking you to transfer thousands of dollars into your account, or offer to pay you in cashier’s checks if you send cash, or help a dying person who is looking for you to give his money to charity? If you have, any and all of these (and more) are scams.

Some of these emails are so amazingly preposterous it can be tempting to reply just for fun—and people have done it. For example, the British comedian James Veitch, who hilariously chronicled his scam reply adventure in a recent TED talk:

Replying to a scam email and pretending to believe them and do what they’re asking is called scambaiting. Wasting these criminals’ time is seen in many circles to be a form of vigilante justice—but one with a bonus. If scammers are busy dealing with bait, these thieves don’t have as much time to scam someone new.

But should you reply to an obviously-a-scam email from someone who is a criminal? The Better Business Bureau warns against it, but Micke, from F-Secure, says you probably can. He argues:

The people behind these kind of scams are not exactly the violent drug mafia. As a matter of fact, anyone who can use e-mail and Google Translate can set up a scam like this. And they are located in some poor remote country, typically in Africa. So it’s extremely unlikely that any of them would start hunting down people who play with them. That would disrupt their everyday business and cut profits, cost money and introduce the risk to get caughtphishing_freedigitalphotos.net_OLsm

BUT, if you’re going to play, do so carefully.

1. Do not use your real identity. Make up a fake name, address, profession, and country/city of residence. Whatever you decide is okay, as long as a, “not a single bit of it is true.” This is a key point. While it can be tempting for victims to get even, “in a case where the scammer knows more about you than you do them, the victims may only make matters worse.”

2. Set up a new email account under a false name. Micke says you can reply to the original spam email using this new email address—scammers send so much email, they won’t likely notice the reply address is different. Not only will this add a layer of protection, it’ll keep your regular email inbox free of this spam.

3. Never, ever meet these people in person. Obvious advice, but it deserves to be on this list.

4. Be prepared for potential consequences. The website 419eater, dedicated to combating email scams, warns that you are dealing with real criminals and should only scambait if you’re prepared. You could be on the receiving end of some off-color language once a scammer realizes their time was just wasted, and possibly even threats. If you receive a threat, the Better Business Bureau suggests you contact the police.

5. Consider learning a few tricks of the trade you hit reply. The scambaiting community does offer hints and tips to offer the newbie. One of the most referenced websites with resources is 419eater.com.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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