35-year-old Rosie Okumura, Rosie Okumura, calls thieves for one to two hours three to four times a week. The Los Angeles-based voice actor has been running a reverse call center for the past two years, dialing the numbers of scammers posing as tax authorities or tech support companies on purpose. When a scammer calls, Okumura will impersonate an old woman, a young girl, or Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. She once fooled a fake customer care representative for Britney Spears.
“I waste their time,” she explains in an interview with The Guardian, “and now they’re not stealing from someone’s grandma.”
Okumura is a “scambaiter,” a person who interrupts, confronts or even tricks scammers all over the world. Even though scambaiting has a 20-year history online, with early forum users using harsh tactics, a new generation of scambaiters is sweeping TikTok and YouTube. Okumura has over 1.5 million followers on both video channels, and she keeps things “funny and light.”
Former junior health minister Lord Bethell tweeted about a “massive sudden increase” in spam calls in April, while the consumer organisation ‘Which?’ discovered that phone and text fraud increased by 83 percent during the pandemic. Scambaiters look like the real deal here, but is the narrative that simple? What drives individuals such as Okumura? Is it true that a scambaiter has ever persuaded a scammer to change his mind?
Okumura became a scambaiter after her mother got scammed in 2019. Her mother noticed an odd pop-up on her computer. It bore the Windows logo and stated that she had a virus; there was also a phone number to contact to have the virus removed. Okumura’s mother gave the scammer remote access to her computer and paid them $500 to remove the virus, but they also collected personal information from her, including her social security number.
Fortunately, the bank halted the transaction, but Okumura expected something more than a refund. She dialled the same number and wasted an hour and 45 minutes of the scammer’s time. “My computer’s giving me the worst vibes,” she said. “Are you in front of your computer right now?” asked the scammer. “Yeah, well, it’s in front of me, is that’s like the same thing?” Okumura uploaded the video to YouTube and has since created over 200 similar videos, from which she earns regular advertising revenue.
“A lot of it is entertainment – it’s funny, it’s fun to do, it makes people happy,” she says when asked why she scambaits. “But I also get a few emails a day saying, “Oh, thank you so much, if it weren’t for that video, I would’ve lost $1,500.” Okumura realises she can’t stop scammers, but she tries to prevent people from falling for them. “I think just educating people and preventing it from happening in the first place is easier than trying to get all the scammers put in jail.”
When asked if scambaiters aid or hamper the battle against fraud, an Action Fraud spokeswoman avoided the question. “It is important people who are approached by fraudsters use the correct reporting channels to assist police and other law enforcement agencies with gathering vital intelligence,” they said. “Word of mouth can be very helpful in terms of protecting people from fraud, so we would always encourage you to tell your friends and family about any scams you know to be circulating.”
As part of their operation, some scambaiters report scammers to the police. Jim Browning is a Northern Irish YouTuber with approximately 3.5 million subscribers who has been making scambaiting videos for the past seven years. Browning has hacked into call centre CCTV footage to identify individuals and access scammers’ devices. He then informs the relevant authorities.
“I wouldn’t call myself a vigilante, but I do enough to say, ‘This is who is running the scam,’ and I pass it on to the right authorities.” He says that he has only seen two scammers arrested in his life earlier this year; he collaborated with the BBC’s Panorama to investigate an Indian call centre, which resulted in the centre being raided by local authorities and the owner got arrested.
In Browning’s one of the most viral videos, he gently calls scammers by their real names. “You’ve gone very quiet for some strange reason,” Browning says during the call, “Are you going to report this to Archit?” The scammer instantly disconnected the call. One user on the video recalled experiencing “literal chills.”
In a thesis on scambaiting, Jack Whittaker, a criminology PhD student at the University of Surrey, states that he is concerned about the “humiliation tactics” and the underlying “eye for an eye” mentality used by scambaiters.
“I’m someone who quite firmly believes that we should live in a system where there’s a rule of law,” Whittaker says. He argues that for scambaiting to be credible, baiters should step beyond unethical and illegal measures such as breaking into a scammer’s computer and erasing all their files.
“I think scambaiters have all the right skills to do some real good in the world. However, they’re directionless,” Whittaker says. “I think there has to be some soul-searching in terms of how we can better utilise volunteers within the policing system as a whole.”
At least one former scambaiter is backing Whittaker. Edward is an American software developer who took part in an infamous bait on the world’s largest scambaiting site in the early 2000s. With the help of a few internet acquaintances, Edward persuaded a scammer named Omar that he got a high-profile job. As a result, Omar took a flight to Lagos.
“He was calling us because he had no money. He had no idea how to get back home. He was crying,” Edward explains. “And I mean, I don’t know if I believe him or not, but that was the one where I was like, ‘Ah, maybe I’m taking things a little too far.’” After that, Edward quit scambaiting. He scambaited for four or five hours a day as a “part-time job” that provided him with “a sense of community and friendship.”
The general population continues to feel helpless in the face of increasingly complex scams. However, scambaiting is unlikely to stop. 23-year-old Cassandra Raposo began scambaiting during the first lockdown in 2020. One of her TikTok videos has received 1.5 million views since then. When scammers asked for her personal information, she told them her name was Nancy Drew, gave them the address of a police station, and played dumb to frustrate them.
“I believe the police and tech companies need to do more to prevent and stop these scams, but I understand it’s difficult,” says Raposo. However, she believes that young people will be inspired to talk to their elders about the tricks scammers use by sharing her videos.
“My videos are making a small but important difference out there,” she says. “As long as they call me, I’ll keep answering.”