My Nigerian Partner

Actor Dean Cameron tells how he managed to scam a spam scammer

You get one almost every day: an e-mail from a stranger requesting an "urgent business relationship." The sender, a barrister or the widow or orphan of some deceased African strongman, needs help moving millions of dollars from a threatened bank account into the United States. A remarkably large percentage of it can be yours, if you open a U.S. account, put some of your own money in it and help facilitate the wire transfer.

In the immortal lyrics of Monty Python, "Spam, spam, spam, spam ..."

It's the inescapable "4-1-9" scam (named after the Nigerian statute that, ineffectively, outlawed it), a descendant of the good old "Spanish Prisoner" con. A few people fall for it and get bilked out of hundreds or thousands of dollars; one or two have even been murdered. Most of us just delete the messages ... day after day after day.

Not Dean Cameron. He wrote back and scammed the spammers.

Cameron, an actor and writer who has starred in a lot of movies and TV shows you probably haven't seen (Rockula, Ski School 1 and 2), was biding his time one day on the set of short-lived TV show Mister Sterling. Bored, he checked his e-mail. ("In the '70s, I would've been doing cocaine, but this is the new millennium," he says.) Yet again, there was Nigerian spam in his inbox. Yet again, he replied with his standard non sequitur message: "Great. Do you have any toast?"

Usually, for obvious reasons, that message gets no response. But this time, the spammer wrote back.

"He said, 'I'm so excited to hear back from you,' as if I'd written, 'Yes, I desperately want to help you!'" Cameron recalls.

Thus began a correspondence in which the spammer pretended to be Mrs. Miriam Abacha, widow of a wealthy Nigerian general, and Cameron pretended to be a lonely, mentally declining old millionaire in Florida. He wound up with 310 pages of correspondence, and even engaged in a few phone conversations--irresistible fodder for a play.

Cameron and fellow actor Victor Isaac (as the Nigerian) will present Cameron's The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam at Invisible Theatre next week, in a three-day run.

"I started screwing with these bad, scary guys, because I'm fascinated by these people," Cameron says. "The more I came to know about them, the more I wanted to learn."

And what did he learn along the way? "I found out that they were human," he says. "Once I called them, and there was one point where I could hear them walk by a group of kids playing, and it made me sad for a second. Here I am, a rich Westerner taking advantage of these poor people and making their life into a joke. But that sadness faded quickly, because I realized the person I was portraying was an older, senile person with a lot of money, and this guy was trying to take his fortune from him. These guys have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from people like our grandparents. They prey on the weak. Oh, they were very nice, very good at their job; the guy talked a very good game, and he was very pushy, like a time-share salesman."

Ultimately, Cameron came clean--once he'd written the play. "I sent the guy a press package earlier this year, and he's not happy about it," he says. "I've invited him to see the play. I've said, 'Please come to the United States, and we can sit down with an attorney and somebody from the FBI, and we can work the copyright stuff out."'

No answer yet.

Cameron says he learned something about himself during his effort to scam a scammer.

"There are hundreds of other people like me who are scam-baiting," he says, "but most of them are rather mean--really, making fun of the scammers in a crude way. It's just cheap humor. In what I did, I think I retained my grace. A couple of people have said after this show, 'You're still respectful of them in a strange way.' I feel like I'm like that in real life, a nice guy who just wants to have a good time."

Well, maybe that good time has gotten out of hand.

"A friend of mine started corresponding with a scammer," he says, "and he was kind of gullible; he didn't believe it was a scam. So I took over as the scammer, and I scammed my own friend out of some money. So it's gone full circle: I have become a Nigerian scammer. Except in that case, I was a woman from Peru."

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