HELLO MY BELOVED IN THE LORD.
I AM MRS. ALICE FLORES DUNU, A NATIONALITY OF BELIZE FORMERLY BRITISH HONDURAS, BORN IN THE STATE OF OHIO USA…[blah, blah, blah]
…MY LATE HUSBAND WAS VERY WEALTHY AND AFTER HIS DEATH, I INHERITED SOME PART OF HIS BUSINESS AND MONEY IN THE BANK. THE DOCTORS HAS ADVISED ME THAT I MAY NOT LIVE FOR MORE THAN TWO MONTHS…[blah, blah, blah]
…I AM WILLING TO DONATE THE SUM OF $12.5M U.S DOLLARS, TO THE LESS PRIVILEGED. I AM GOING TO ADVICE MY LAWYER TO CHANGE MY LAST WILL TO YOUR NAME AND FILE IN AN APPLICATION FOR THE TRANSFER OF THE MONEY IN YOUR NAME. [blah, blah, blah, email address]
I AWAIT URGENT REPLY.
MRS. ALICE FLORES DUNU
If you use the Interwebs, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the mind-numbing crap above. In fact, it has the distinction of being one of the first bona fide scams on the Web, almost as old as the Web itself. In fact, it’s older than that, having cut its teeth as a snail mail scam in the 1980s. And you might even be surprised to discover that the scam is far older than that, dating back to the 1800s, when businessmen would be contacted by an individual purportedly trying to smuggle someone connected to a family fortune out of prison in Spain.
It’s technically known as advance-fee fraud. Today, we know it more commonly as the Nigerian 419 scam, named in part after the early origins of the Internet, when emails suggested that the imaginary monies were locked up in a bank in Nigeria, and given the ‘419’ moniker to refer to the specific article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraudulent activities (like trying to bilk innocent people out of their hard-earned savings).
Most are familiar with it, but 419 spam still has a mysterious nature about it. Many have wondered how such drivel subsists. It’s so badly written, and the idea so ill-conceived, that the stuff is laughable. Most of us would be well within our rights to almost feel sorry for the losers who concocted this stuff, considering the time and effort that’s gone into constructing the message, blasting it to the world, and dealing with the tongue-in-cheek follow-up that 419 spams must necessarily draw. And people would be justified in assuming that there’s no way anyone falls for this effluvia.
Sadly, they’d be wrong.
The sobering truth is that some people are, for lack of a kinder word, stupid. IQ distribution is as inclusive as income distribution, and there are people out there who are intellectually poor. And it’s those intellectually poor that the 419ers are targeting. Cormac Herley, a researcher for Microsoft, famously wrote that “By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.” It’s elegant, when you consider that statement. Self selection over natural selection. Darwin’s law inverted.
The authors of the hugely popular book Freakonomics agree, and they’ve put the argument down on paper in their latest offering, Think Like a Freak. According to Business Insider, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner point out that the 419 scam’s “obviousness is its chief selling point.”
In the book, the authors look at Herley’s research, which considers the scam from the point of view of the scammer. “How, he wondered, were scammers who never sent an email free of typos earning enough money for the United States Secret Service to establish its own task force to fight them?”
Of course, we know that the typos, the atrocious grammar, and the ridiculous notion behind the story are all critical to the scam’s effectiveness. Levitt ad Dubner discuss false positives, where “email recipients…engage with the scammers but don’t ultimately pay.” And while the shotgun approach to spam is easy, dealing with replies can be time-consuming if you’re a hungry 419er who needs to take your Ferrari to the shop for detailing. The Yahoo Boys need to eat.
It’s simplistically brilliant. By minimizing the number of false positives, the spammers reduce the target pool to the lowest common denominator. According to BI, Herley told the book’s authors, “Anybody who doesn’t fall off their chair laughing is exactly who they want to talk to.”
While it’s not recommended that anyone engages with these people, BI reports “Herley tells Levitt and Dubner that the best defense against these crooks is to game their system and waste their time, [putting] the effort toward the false positives they’re trying to avoid.”