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If scams are symptomatic of their time, what do they tell us about now and what do they say about us?

Spam and its prevention have been a driving force in the history of the internet. It's changed laws and communities, language and culture.

It comes in all shapes and forms, the most popular of which is advance fee scams. You know the drill: an agent for the widow of charitable billionaire wants to give you a share of a multi million-dollar 'inheritance'... in return for your help in getting access to it by posing as a cousin or a niece.

But this type of spam isn't just a feature of digital living; it's been around a lot longer than that.

The Digital Human traces the roots of the longest running spam scam in human history, before casting ahead to a world of intelligent spambots.

Aleks Krotoski asks if scams are symptomatic of their time, what do they tell us about now and what do they say about us?

Producer: Caitlin Smith.

Available now

30 minutes

Music Played

  • Hauschka

    Can You Dance for me

  • Stereolab

    Blue Milk

  • Hauschka

    Belgrade

  • Orbital

    Forever

  • Orbital

    Kein Trink Wasser

  • Orbital

    Never

  • Mozart

    Concerto For Piano And Orchestra No.21 In C: K.467

Finn Brunton

Finn Brunton

Finn Brunton is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, he tells the story of how spam, and the fight against it, has shaped the internet.


James Caverlee

James Caverlee

James Caverlee is Associate Professor of Department of Computer Science and Engineering

At Texas A&M University. He’s interested in the future of spam and how it might evolve in the future. Here, he talks spambots and AI.

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Confidence Game, winner of the 2016 Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking, and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and is a contributing writer for The New Yorker.  She gives us an insight into the psychology behind con men’s tricks.

Robert Whitaker

Robert Whitaker

Robert Whitaker is an Assistant Professor of European History and Digital Humanities at Louisiana Tech University. He also works as a Research Fellow with The Waggonner Center at Louisiana Tech. Robert’s areas of research include the histories of empire, globalization, and international crime and policing. His current project, “Policing Globalization,” studies the relationship between the British Empire and international police organizations, such as Interpol. In addition to his traditional academic work, Robert is the creator and presenter of History Respawned, a video and podcast series that considers historical content in video games.


He shares his research into the fraudulent letters sent in the Spanish Prisoner scheme, one of the oldest forms of spam - and perhaps the first international crime ring in the world.


Chris the Scambaiter

Chris the Scambaiter
Chris is a member of the 419eater scambaiter site. He shows us his scambaiting nerve centre and gives us the low down on how he distracts the scammers. He takes on con artists, the fraudsters who pose as agents for the widows of charitable billionaires from Sierra Leone; the ones who promise you a share of a multimillion-dollar ‘inheritance’ stashed in a Russian bank account... in return for your help in getting access to it by posing as a cousin or a niece

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