We all get them: scam emails that claim to be able to make us millionaires overnight. But why are they so terribly unconvincing? And why do they even admit to being based in places like Nigeria? A Microsoft researcher claims to have the answer.
In particular, we're talking about the offers to cut you into a deal, which offer a healthy—say 5 or 10 percent—cut of the profits. They normally end up requiring a small transfer of money from the person who's being scammed to enable the deal to take place. Then another transfer of money, then another until... everything goes quiet.
These scams are normally know as "Nigerian scams", because that's where they tend to originate from, but you might also know them by their proper name: Advance fee fraud. And they work! Last year, one Nigerian fraudster received a 12-year jail sentence after scamming $1.3 million from victims.
But why on Earth are the emails written to sound so hugely unbelievable? Who the hell is going to fall for them?
Cormac Herley from Microsoft Research has been digging into the problem. He specializes in machine learning, and has thrown a hell of a lot of maths at analyzing the emails and their success rate. Fortunately, his finding is easy enough to understand: the scammers aren't interested in seeming believable. They just want to find the most gullible victims they can, to maximize their return on their effort.
While sending emails is cheap for the scammers, you see, following through with responses and then initiating the process of getting money out of victims is both labor-intensive and expensive. So they want to wheedle out only those victims that they know they can scam from the off. From Herley's paper:
"[I]f the goal is to maximize response to the email campaign it would seem that mentioning 'Nigeria' (a country that to many has become synonymous with scams) is counter-productive. One could hardly choose a worse place to claim to be from if the goal is to lure the unwary into email communication…
"Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify. 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 [of search engines]. It won't be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or fiends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers ideal targets. They represent a tiny subset of the overall population."
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