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To make sure grandmas like his don't get conned, he scams the scammers

Kitboga, a popular "scam baiter" who hides behind characters to waste the time of scammers, has a combined Twitch and YouTube following of more than million subscribers. His aviator sunglasses — a signature look — recall a comically disguised CIA agent.
Kitboga on Twitch
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Screenshot by NPR
Kitboga, a popular "scam baiter" who hides behind characters to waste the time of scammers, has a combined Twitch and YouTube following of more than million subscribers. His aviator sunglasses — a signature look — recall a comically disguised CIA agent.

The gentle voice of an elderly woman named Edna is heard over the phone.

"I'm going to call Ticketmaster and see if we can get us some tickets to a Taylor Swift concert, OK?" she says. "Will you call them with me?"

She's speaking to a scammer from Nigeria on the other end of the line who is after her money. For months, he's spent a rough total of 20 hours on the phone with her, professing his love as he tries to get her to invest her millions in a house on the Moon. But the rambling Edna has been testing his patience with her absurd questions and tangents.

When the scammer insists they marry in Nigeria, a place he says he's never been, Kitboga drops the act.

"Interesting, 'cause all of your IP addresses are there," Kitboga says on a livestream, his voice now deeper, after switching off a voice changer. The naïve Edna character is one of the many disguises devised by Kitboga, the alias of a computer software engineer-turned-Twitch streamer, to lure scammers into his traps.

Americans lost a record $12.5 billion to internet crimes last year

Kitboga, also called Kit, is a millennial with a knack for improvisation. He's among the most popular of so-called scam baiters, a term used to describe those who aim to waste scammers' time otherwise spent ripping off innocent victims. It's a lucrative gig for some of the biggest creators in the genre who, like Kit, have quit their jobs to scam bait full-time, often broadcasting their humorous schemes on YouTube and Twitch. As internet scams spike, with victims losing more money than ever, scam baiters like Kitboga are trying to get more than just laughs.

Americans lost a record $12.5 billion to internet crimes last year, according to the FBI's latest annual report, marking a 22% jump from 2022. The bureau says that number is likely higher because so many crimes go unreported. Law enforcement agencies lack the resources to investigate the majority of internet-based fraud, and few victims see their money returned.

But, like others in the world of scam baiting, Kitboga figures that the longer he can keep fraudsters on the line, the fewer victims fall prey to these scams.

Kitboga reveals the ridiculous lengths scammers will go to steal from the vulnerable. The episodes lend themselves to teaching moments for the viewers tuned into his streams. He breaks down the latest scams he encounters, from his own investigations or tips from his subscribers, sometimes learning as he goes. To his 1.2 million Twitch followers — a count he's doubled on YouTube — he's shed light on some of the most rampant and costliest cyber threats, from tech support and gift card fraud, to pig butchering scams. Pig butchering is a combination of a romance and an investment scam, usually involving cryptocurrency, in which the scammer slowly works to gain the trust of their victim before convincing them to invest money they'll never get back.

"Getting emails from someone saying, 'I knew that this was a scam because of your video,' ends up being a really cool mission-accomplished type feeling," Kitboga said.

It wasn't so long ago that Kitboga himself was ignorant of the types of scams he now encounters daily.

Kit was further inspired to start scam baiting because scammers had been taking advantage of his grandmother

He was inspired to start scambaiting in 2017, after coming across a YouTube clip of"Lenny," a beloved chatbot designed to trick telemarketers into thinking they are talking to a live person. The bot was an early scam baiter: Lenny wastes the time of spammers and scammers as the recorded voice of a forgetful old man spits out lines prompted by pauses on the other end.

It was then that Kit realized that tech support scams were a thing. He thought of his grandmother, whose dementia made her a more vulnerable target, and his grandfather with Alzheimer's.

"I work on computers all day. If I don't know this exists, my grandparents definitely don't know," he said. "And there was just this spark of maybe I could do something about it."

Scammers had been taking advantage of his grandmother, he learned. She was paying for multiple cable and internet packages. He said "sketchy" people were showing up at her house on her dime, doing unnecessary tasks.

But as Edna, a character modeled after his grandma, he realized he could manipulate the scammers.

"The initial drive or mission was, if I spent 10 minutes on the phone, then that was 10 minutes that that scammer wasn't talking to my grandma or your grandma," he said.

Friends encouraged him to stream his calls with scammers on Twitch. Since then, he said he's helped several victims escape the hold of scammers and disrupted large fraud operations.

Getting back stolen money is rare. But reporting scams to authorities increases your chances

On a good day, Kitboga gathers enough intel from the scammer that he then reports to the authorities. Scammers, seeing him as an unsuspecting victim, will occasionally give up bank account details, cryptocurrency wallet addresses and other identifying information that he said he shares in his reports to banking authorities, in complaints to the FBI, and in direct communications with law enforcement.

"If they think you're falling for their scams, they end up giving way too much information sometimes," he said.

The FBI and the Secret Service did not confirm to NPR whether it has agents working with Kitboga or any other scam bait streamers, saying it doesn't comment on specific activities. The bureau encourages victims to promptly report online scams to its Internet Crime Complaint Center, iC3.gov. The FBI uses those complaints to build cases against cybercriminals. Of the small percentage of overall crimes it does look into, the bureau has a relatively high success rate of stopping scams. Last year, the FBI's recovery unit was able to freeze roughly 71% of the $758 million stolen in fraud crimes it investigated.

As to how to fight fraud, strategies differ among scam baiters. The ethics of how far to take the trolling are debated in online forums. Some have questioned the murky practices of Pierogi, the alias of another popular streamer in the scambaiting world, who is known for having more of a vigilante streak. Another has faced legal repercussions for his tactics. Thomas Dorsher, who ran the YouTube channel ScammerBlaster to document his efforts in punishing illegal robocallers, was fined by the FCC for running his own illegal robocalling scheme.

Among scam baiters, Kitboga is known for toeing the line: "I kind of treat it like, well, if it's illegal for me I shouldn't do it," he said.

Even so, Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, advises scam baiters to be cautious. As a veteran fraud investigator who has worked major telemarketing cases, she said, "I wouldn't recommend this at all."

Scam baiters should be cautious as some scammers may do more than defraud people

You don't always know who's on the other side of the phone. Although streamers largely target call center scammers who have rudimentary hacking skills, there's a chance it could be a con artist capable of doxing the scam baiter, Williams said. Some scammers, she added, are not willingly defrauding people, but are victims of human trafficking operations.

"When you're playing around with people whose job it is to be a criminal, you need to really think about what are you attempting to do," she said. "If it's truly just to entertain followers then, no, I don't think it's the right thing to do at all."

For many people who watch Kit's content, the amusement factor was the Trojan Horse to real information they say helps them stay alert to scams.

Dylon Cai, 40, said he's a lot wiser to the various scams out there after coming across Kitboga's channel. Years ago, he was ensnared in a tech support scam that caused him to lose all of his college work on his laptop.

"It was frustrating," he said. "At that time, YouTube was just starting out. I really wish that somebody was actually able to share this kind of content to me. That would have prevented that experience I had."

Cindy, who doesn't want to use her last name due to the threat of scams, said scammers hounded her late parents' phone line after she became the executor of their estates. A search for answers took her to Kitboga's Twitch stream.

"I started off trying to find solutions but then I began to love the entertainment portion of it," she said. "He's just very addictive to watch and I get a little schadenfreude from seeing [scammers] get their comeuppance."

Cindy, who at 64 is on the older side of the scam baiter's predominately millennial viewership, has since joined Kit's team of volunteers, helping promote his content and keep track of his anti-scam sagas. She said her husband, who doesn't watch Kit's content, now looks to her when he's confronted with suspicious activity online.

"He comes to me, he's like, 'What's this?' And I'm like, 'Oh, that's a scam,' " she said. "I feel empowered, you know."

Kit has taken a more proactive approach in his latest schemes, which have allowed him to thwart scammers even while he's sleeping. He's set up a "honeypot" trap, created with artificial intelligence, that sends scammers through a series of unending verification steps in search of non-existent stolen Bitcoin accounts.

Recently, he also released anti-scam software. "I've seen how devastating they [scams] can be," Kitboga said, "but also learned — going back to my grandma — how I could stop someone from ever getting on her computer in the first place."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]