Turning inner space into outer space

July 16, 2014

Email scams are obvious for a reason

Those Nigerian email scammers must think we’re really stupid, right? For years, they’ve been trying to trick us into handing over our bank accounts with amazing tales of untold riches to be unlocked.

The truth, it turns out, is that they know that less than one per cent of us are that stupid. But that’s all they need. They know few people will believe their story of a deposed prince who needs a way to get his money out of the country. But from their point of view, that’s a good thing.

The last thing scammers want to do is waste time trying to lure people who are too sensible to fall for their schemes. It’s much better to concentrate their efforts on the truly gullible.

Chart showing email origins

This topic came up recently at Quora, a website devoted to giving intelligent answers to people’s questions.

One person asked why it is that email scams are typically written in broken English. Are they crafted by people with a poor command of the language or by idiots who simply can’t spell?

It turns out that these emails are often deliberately written this way. The 99 per cent of people who know better will put them straight into the trash. The remaining one per cent — the credulous and the easily deceived — will be reeled in.

Microsoft researchers have published a paper on this method called Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria? Here’s an excerpt:

An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions. It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or friends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers’ ideal targets.

Another reason for using broken English may be to get past spam filters. There seems to be a whole industry based on ways of presenting the word “Viagra” without using the actual letters used to spell it.

Also, part of the scheme may be to portray the scammer as the one who is gullible. Greedy victims might be lured in thinking they can get the best of the deal.

So now you know — they don’t think you’re stupid after all. It’s that other guy they’re aiming for.

Image credit: Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria?