The Nigerian scam letters that pop up so often in your inbox have become the Rodney Dangerfield of email cons: They get no respect, just laughs. Who in their right mind would fall for a stranger’s misspelled offer of millions of dollars of loot for essentially doing nothing? Who would believe someone claiming to be in the very country that’s become synonymous with scammers? It turns out, says a new study by Microsoft, that the letters purposely sound ridiculous—because it pays off.
“Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical,” writes study author Cormac Herley. “Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage…By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select.”
Loaded with equations and graphs, the study applies advanced math to the question. The scammer’s challenge is to weed out “false positives,” email users who are targeted but smart enough not to respond to Nigerian letters, which were the very first mass scam on the Internet and continue to be among the most prevalent. Scammers are looking for that tiny group of “true positives,” suckers who respond eagerly and never stop to think what’s really going on as they send upfront fees, bank account info and Social Security numbers in hopes of claiming a fortune that of course never arrives.
“The scam involves an initial email campaign which has almost zero cost per recipient,” notes Herley’s study. “Only when potential victims respond does the labor-intensive and costly effort of following up by email (and sometimes phone) begin.” So the scammers want only the unshakeably clueless to respond; they don’t want to waste time on people who are going to get wise after the gang’s invested hours of one-on-one contact. It’s not exactly what they may teach at business school, but it makes dollars and sense: For the best chance of closing a deal, focus on customers most likely to buy (into a lie, in this case).
But why specifically mention Nigeria? “A less outlandish wording that did not mention Nigeria would almost certainly gather more total responses…but would yield lower overall profit,” notes Herley. That’s because respondents would include more people who would ultimately yield not a single dollar.
Photo credit: Nick Ares via flickr.com