Each year, online phishing scams cost Americans roughly half a billion dollars in stolen cash. One way to protect yourself is to train your eye to recognize fraudulent emails and delete them once they enter your inbox, but some experts recommend a more proactive way to deal with scammers: Engage with them. The idea is that the more time they spend answering your questions, the less time they’ll have to prey upon more susceptible victims. Sounds like a smart plan, but few people have the time or the patience to tackle the flood of spam they receive one message at a time. That’s why a New Zealand-based nonprofit developed a bot to help the cause.
According to Co.Design, Re:scam from Netsafe is designed to keep the person at the other end of the email chain distracted for as long as possible. Web users wishing to get in on the fun can forward their scam emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. From there, an artificially intelligent bot takes over the conversation. It’s programmed to ask questions that make it seem like an interested and naive respondent—a scammer’s preferred victim. But as the sample emails show, the scam never moves forward.
“Did I tell you I was moving?" the bot writes when it's asked to send its address. "We fell out with the landlord. Apparently we’re not allowed to have indoor plants in the attic cos it’s a fire hazard." It might offer to send Chevron petrol vouchers in place of cash, or to email a bank account number one digit at a time for security’s sake. It’s also capable of making bad jokes and typos just like a real person. “I understand the urgency. Time is money as they say. Does that make ATM’s time machine? Just a thought I had,” one response reads.
At some point the scammers will realize they’re being played and stop replying, but not before they’ve lost time that could have been spent going after someone else. So far, over 50,000 emails have been sent by Re:scam. All the while, the nonprofit has been analyzing the messages it receives so the data can be used to better fight scammers in the future.
If you’re lucky enough to have your inbox free of messages asking you to wire money to Nigerian princes, you can watch the video below to see how the technology works.