The Internet Scammer Who Won

Pictured above is a brief conversation, originally from Facebook’s chat feature, between a guy named Joel Willie from Libera, Africa (top left) and a guy named Ben Taylor from Utah, United States, North America (bottom right). And unless today is your first day using the Internet, you probably know that Joel is a scammer. Most likely, Joel is running something called an “advance-fee scam” — you can read the Wikipedia entry on that, here, if you’re interested in how that works, but for our purposes, let’s just take for granted that Joel is up to no good.

Ben, however, doesn’t seem to get that — or, maybe, doesn’t seem to mind. He replies, seemingly earnestly, by asking how he can help. And while we can’t see Joel’s reply back, suffice it to say that Joel took Ben up on his offer. 

And it turned out, Ben really was going to help. He just didn’t realize it yet.

Originally, Ben’s intention was to have some fun at Joel’s expense — and to delight a few people along the way. It was something he had done before, successfully. Utah news agency KSL explains

While Taylor’s common sense told him it would be best to ignore the poorly-spelled plea for financial help from a man in Africa, he hadn’t let that stop him in the past. He would often try to waste scammers’ time by responding to their messages, even documenting some of the antics on his YouTube channel. So Taylor decided to bite and — like any good YouTuber — press record.

Ben’s conversations with Joel didn’t go as he planned, though. At first, Joel asked for electronic equipment, but Ben wasn’t about to give in so easily. Instead, Ben decided to string Joel along a bit by offering up a new deal: if Joel took pictures of some African sunsets, Ben — claiming to own a photography business — would buy them, but only if the photos were good.

Joel, perhaps thinking he had caught someone in his scam, decided to keep the conversation going. He took some pictures and sent them back to Ben, as requested. The photos weren’t very good, but Ben decided to keep Joel engaged. Joel was on the right track, but Ben told Joel that he needed a better camera. And Ben, for reasons that really don’t make sense, decided to provide him with that camera. CBS News tells us more:

“I told him, ‘Hey, this was great,” Ben said. “I told him, ‘This is a good job, but I think you need a little bit better of a camera.'”

So Ben actually spent $60 to buy and mail him a shiny red one.

“Yeah, so I’m investing my money,” Ben said. “My family thinks I’m crazy because I’m interacting with this guy in Liberia.”

But Joel didn’t think it was crazy at all. He wrote, “I’ve decided 2 really commit n devote myself 2 dis business, what other pictures you want me 2 take?” 

And now, Ben had gone too far. Joel was doing earnest work, but only because Ben had promised him a payday if he worked at his craft. Ben could back out, of course, but if he did, wouldn’t that make him the bad guy in the story? As Ben admitted to CBS, “he had “to figure out a way to compensate Joel for these pictures or [he was] going to be the scammer.” 

The idea he came up with? Get his small audience of YouTube viewers to help. As Readers’ Digest reports, Ben “decided to make a booklet using the pictures, calling it By D Grace of God, a phrase borrowed from ­[Joel’s] messages.” He sold them to his viewers at $8 apiece, expecting to sell maybe a dozen or two. He sold more than 100, earning $1,000 for Joel.

Ben gave all the cash to Joel, but with a catch; he insisted that Joel donate half the amount — $500 — to a local charity.  Despite the fact that $500 is a huge amount of money in Liberia — many people live on the equivalent of $2 per day — Joel agreed and followed through on that promise. Ben, now seeing Joel for more than the opportunist he first appeared to be, decided he wanted to meet his new accidental business partner.

So in 2018, Ben went to Liberia to meet Joel — and to expand their business. While there, the duo took a lot more pictures and put together a second book, available here, telling their collective story. That book, which they sell for $10, went viral. The combined sales of the two books, per Readers’ Digest, is over $90,000 as of January 2020.

The money raised from the books hasn’t gone into Joel’s pocket, either. While he’s now earning a better living, most of the cash has gone to his community — toward food for the hungry, to purchase care packages for children over Christmas, and to save a school that couldn’t make ends meet, among causes. What started as a scam and quickly turned into a YouTube stunt instead became a touching, globe-trotting moment for good.

Bonus fact: Despite the fact that the message from Joel, above, is so obviously a scam, a lot of people still fall for such things. In 2018, according to a report by CNBC, more than 300 Americans fell for it that year, costing them a collective $700,000 or so — or a bit more than $2,000 per person scammed.

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