Con Warner felt sorry for the college student who had been duped into sending her "rental deposit" via wire transfer to a Nigerian internet scammer, but he knew there was no use reporting the incident to police. So he took matters into his own hands.
"She didn't know what I did," Warner says. "Nobody really knows." Since exposing that first fake landlord, he has done the same in cities worldwide, including Charleston.
As a moderator on the ScamWarners.com message boards, Warner (a British man who goes by an alias to protect his identity) gets his revenge on con artists in two ways: by exposing their schemes in the forums and by wasting their time. In one case, he played dumb and told a Ghanaian scammer that he wanted to pay in person, convincing the crook to make a long trip to the airport for a payoff that never came.
"Police haven't got the resources or the budget to go after what is in essence a small crime," he says. "If one person reports it, and they've lost a thousand dollars, the police can't afford to track these people down"
In another case last March, Warner alerted his readers to a Dutch website that purported to sell mobile telephones but instead just took people's money through bank transfers, until the website's owner was forced to take it down. Then, when the same trickster tried running a similar fraud at another URL, Warner put up the red flag on that one, too — and on the one after that.
Warner's area of expertise is rental scams, and he says roughly 90 percent of the criminals he deals with in that category are from Nigeria. Other brands of fraud are popular with different nationalities, though, and he says he sees a lot of Russians perpetuating romance scams. He sounds genuinely sympathetic on the phone as he talks about the hapless victims he has encountered online, people like the 50-year-old British man who thinks he is going to marry a Ghanaian princess and the New Zealander who lost a quarter-million dollars in bogus advance fees on a house.
Warner believes he's up against sophisticated operations in some cases, pointing to certain templates that have been used again and again for scam e-mails and online listings. In some cases, as he sends e-mails back and forth with scammers, he can see the quality of writing and syntax improve from one message to the next, suggesting that his case is being handed off to a more experienced supervisor. In other instances, he gets the sense that the first few e-mails are form letters, and quality drops off dramatically as the writer goes "off-script."
In their own countries, he says, some of the more successful scammers are seen as legitimate entrepreneurs.
"Some of these businessmen, as they call themselves, become well-respected in the community because they have these flashy cars and whatever, so the young lads want to be the same," he says. "They have a gangster attitude to it, you know."
Warner says he has received death threats, and he is careful to cloak himself online. He doesn't see himself as some heroic masked avenger, though.
"This is my hobby," he says. "I can't stand television. I cook for my whole family, and after dinner I hammer away at the computer because the television just bores the living daylights out of me."