Re-scamming the scammers

A new development by Netsafe rescams the scammers and is proving hugely effective in using up the time and resources of the scammers.
By Sarah Pearce

Online security and privacy has been a point of concern since the advent of the internet. And in a broader sense, communications technologies have always had unintended consequences in the form of making people vulnerable to exploitation. This goes back to the early 20th century when cunning conmen would cut telegraph wires that reported race reports, allowing them time to place winning bets before the ‘results’ arrived.  

Modern-day scams can be much more sophisticated and with security vulnerabilities in digital communications, there are plenty of opportunities. These can range from Facebook trading scams, to Ashley Madison extortion scams to simple cold-call scams. Some can be quite convincing and lead to huge financial losses every year.

When looking at phishing alone, an astounding $12 billion is lost annually around the globe. While many companies are developing ways to combat scams, some are developing more creative ways than others. 

 One New Zealand organisation, Netsafe, offers a multitude of tools and resources to protect individuals from scams. One product, Re:scam, is comprised of an artificially intelligent robot that reads and replies to scam emails. When you suspect that an email you’ve received is a scam, you just forward it to the [email protected], where the bot will reply to the scammers. It’s able to take on multiple personas, will joke or use humour and will even include grammatical errors in order to humanise the interaction.

The genius in this is not in simply identifying which emails are part of a scam; it’s the ability of the bot to use up the time and resources of the scammer. It will remain engaged with them until the scammer stops replying. It turns the tables so that the scammer gets scammed, and Re:scam will even send you transcripts of the conversations which can be pretty humourous. Who doesn’t like a little poetic justice when it’s well-deserved? 

With all the recent advancements in AI, these types of services or products will become more frequently used. Scammers could certainly use this sort of technology, and it’s clear some already do. The objective of scammers is to filter out potential victims so AI can do that very efficiently. The objective of Re:scam is to obscure real potential victims with lots of fake vulnerable people. It’s easy to see a future where it’s pretty much AI vs AI.

Examples of other companies that are operating in this space would include LIS and Fraugster. LIS targets spam and viruses that are often a part of broader scams. The content is then rejected and quarantined. 

Fraugster was created by several former developers that worked on PayPal. The premise of their application is to develop something that could adapt to fraudulent patterns in real time. In that vein, they developed a very powerful algorithm with the ability to review a transaction by mimicking the thought process of a human analyst, and decide whether to either accept or reject a proposed transaction. 

This is especially important since more than 65 percent of organisations with revenues exceeding $1 billion were victims of payment fraud in 2014, according to the 2015 AFP Payments Fraud and Control Survey. With an insurmountable amount of financial transactions occurring every day, there is no way a human analyst could review everything, so this appears to be the next-best option. 

It’s not just fringe companies that are turning toward AI; the Commonwealth Bank of Australia is also developing AI tools to fight fraud and cybercrime. There seems to be a widely accepted premise that AI will be crucial in flagging and combating fraud in the future. 

As to Re:scam, just a few days after its launch in December it had already sent 26,000 emails and wasted approximately three months of scammers’ time.

 It’s hard to say exactly where AI will get to in five years, but we can say with certainty that it will improve and apply its learnings more flexibly and intelligently. In this case it would mean adjusting the pace of exchange to ensure scammers felt they were making progress, and then slowing down to frustrate them. 

With digital fraud and scamming tactics on the rise, there is no doubt that applications like these will make an impact on fighting scammers. However, it is still important to stay vigilant, monitor all of your activity, stay abreast of current scams, and look for red flags. 


[Netsafe says Re:scam  will stop replying to new forwarded emails over the holiday period, although it will continue all the conversations it has already started. In 2018 Netsafe will be looking into the future of the service, including how it might be managed perhaps with the help of partners who can contribute to the ongoing overheads that the service requires. – Editor]


Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and the author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age.


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