Why Nigerian e-mail scams are so crude and obvious

June 22, 2012

Let's try the ol' Nigerian prince routine (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

You open your inbox, and a familiar message pops up:

DEAR SIR, I am Prince Kufour Otumfuo the elder son of the late King Otumfuo Opoku ware II whose demise occur following a brief illness. Before the death of my father, King Otumfuo Opoku ware II, I was authorised and officially known as the next successor and beneficiary of my father's property according to African Traditional rite. …

Seriously?,” you mutter. Since you are not (presumably!) a total idiot, you immediately recognize this for what it is — an Internet scam. Someone’s claiming to have untold riches and they just need you to wire them some money so that they can airlift said riches your way. It’s the most crudely obvious Internet hustle in the history of Internet hustles.

So why don’t Internet scammers try to change up their tactics? Everyone knows about the Nigerian prince. It’s tired and cliched. Why don’t more scammers try to dupe us with the fake inheritances of a Kazakh prince instead, or with Greek bonds or fancy credit default swaps or something clever like that? Something we haven’t seen before?

A fascinating new paper (pdf) from Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley actually tries to answer this question. He notes that 51 percent of all e-mail scams still originate from Nigeria, even though this is the most obvious scam known to mankind. And Corley argues (with math and graphs) that it’s not because scammers are stupid. Most of them are actually quite clever. Rather, they’re explicitly trying to weed out everyone but the most gullible respondents:

Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. 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.

Scamming people, after all, costs time and money. Herley notes that everyone who responds to a scamming ploy “requires a large amount of interaction.” The worst thing that can happen, from the scammer’s point of view, is that a savvy person starts responding and toying with the scammer. (Teddy Wayne, a writer for The Awl, recently conducted an amusing three-month Facebook correspondence with a man from Malaysia pretending to be a beautiful woman — this is a nightmare for scammers!) Better to keep the e-mails predictable and tired. That way only the most unsuspecting suckers respond.

At any rate, the scammers must be doing something right. In 2009, these “advanced-fee fraud” efforts managed to pry $9.3 billion out of unwitting victims around the world. And the business is growing at a 5 percent rate each year — especially as more people in developing countries get connected to the Internet.

(Link via The Verge.)

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Suzy Khimm · June 22, 2012