Jack Mark Whittaker, University of Surrey and Mark Button, University of Portsmouth
Fraud has reached “epidemic” levels in the UK over the past 12 months, costing up to £190 billion a year and constituting what the Royal United Services Institute has called a “national security threat” in need of an urgent institutional response.
But it’s clear that the police are struggling to keep pace with fraudsters. A 2018 Which? report found that an estimated 96% of fraud cases reported to Action Fraud go unsolved. And with scams seemingly on the rise, 54% of which involve the internet, the problem of online fraud appears to be getting worse.
There are romance scammers forming bogus online relationships with their victims, pet scammers setting up thousands of websites selling animals that don’t exist, and phishing scammers using fear and urgency to obtain sensitive personal information from victims.
In response to the growing threat of online fraud, volunteers have taken the matter of policing scams into their own hands, with some forming vigilante groups of “scambaiters” who seek to identify and disrupt scammers where police forces have failed.
But while scambaiters may be effective in reducing online fraud, our study has shown they’re also controversial, with some communities rewarding scambaiters who humiliate or inflict harm on scammers. On closer inspection, this form of vigilante justice may actually do more harm than good.
What is scambaiting?
The most basic form of scambaiting sets out to waste a scammer’s time. At a minimum, scambaiters attempt to make scammers answer countless questions or perform pointless and random tasks. By keeping a scammer busy, scambaiters claim they’re preventing the scammer from defrauding a real victim.