$12 billion is lost globally to phishing scams. While you may believe you could easily figure out that the email from your grandma who is desperately asking you for money is not really an email from your grandma, not all phishing scams are that obvious and many people fall for them. In fact, a 2015 survey done by Intel Security covering 19,000 respondents from 144 countries, revealed that a staggering 80% misidentified at least one phishing email.
Now, Netsafe, a non-profit organization in New Zealand with a focus on online safety, is fighting back. With their new initiative called Re:scam, Netsafe has deployed a well-educated, artificially intelligent chat-bot that can take on multiple personalities and engage in correspondence with scammers, wasting their time indefinitely or until the scammers themselves realize they are being scammed.
The exchanges can be hilarious. Here is a sample of the bot's replies from a rather long email thread between the bot and a scammer posing as The Bureau of African Affairs and looking to extract personal and bank details.
“Hi, was this letter supposed to go to me? It all seems quite a wee bit official like. I’ve never been beneficiaried before. Just want to make sure I’m who I am before I get too excited.”
“How soon can I expect to receive these funds? I owe a pretty significant amount to Readers Digest and need to pay them back before they take legal action.”
“Do you mean your business days or our business days? What time zone are you in?”
“I understand the urgency. Time is money as they say. Does that make ATM’s time machines? Just a thought I had. Anyway. Keen to move this along.”
Engaging with the bot leaves less time for scammers to engage with real people. In addition, the emails that the chat bot receives help to develop its vocabulary and knowledge of scams. These emails also help with the collection of data about scammers’ locations and activities.
Netsafe’s CEO Martin Cocker says:
“Everyone is susceptible to online phishing schemes and no matter how tech savvy you are, scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Re:scam will adapt as the scammers adapt their techniques, collecting data that will help us to keep up and protect more people across New Zealand.”
In just a few days Re:scam has already sent 26,609 emails and wasted more than 3 months worth of scammers’ time. So far, the longest exchange between a scammer and a chatbot was 20 emails long.
To help the fight against scammers, instead of deleting your scam emails, you can forward them (old or new) to firstname.lastname@example.org and Netsafe will engage in a conversation on your behalf from a proxy email account.
They will even send you a summary of the conversation the bot has had with the scammer and, as Netsafe writes on their website, “sometimes they can be quite funny!”
Here's a great example of one below: