If you’re reading this blog, or have used the Internet for some time, no doubt you’re familiar with the Nigerian scams. The big question, though: why are these scam emails written to sound so overwhelmingly unbelievable? Who the hell is going to (and does) fall for them?
Cormac Herley from Microsoft Research has been involved in interesting research: figuring out why scammers often claim they’re from Nigeria [PDF link]. Herley specializes in machine learning, and his finding is that 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.
[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 friends, 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.
A less outlandish wording that did not mention Nigeria would almost certainly gather more total responses and more viable responses, but would yield lower overall profit. Recall, that viability requires that the scammer actually extract money from the victim: those who are fooled for a while, but then figure it out, or who balk at the last hurdle are precisely the expensive false positives that the scammer must deter…
The hypothesis makes sense: if you can weed out the non-gullible population from the start, the odds of your scamming efforts will surely increase.