Can there be a person reading this column who has not been contacted by
a person claiming to be the widow of Nigeria's long-dead dictator General Abacha?
Far-fetched email scams are commonplace — and, of course, they don't all emanate from Nigeria.
Which brings us to a puzzle: why don't fraudulent spammers think of a better cover story? One possibility is that they don't know any better — they don't realise that on the rare occasion one of the daft emails gets through our spam filters, our response is likely to be to snigger. But pulling off a scam like this isn't easy, so perhaps we should credit the fraudsters with some brains and look for method in the madness.
That is exactly what Cormac Herley has been doing. A researcher at Microsoft, Herley argues that the scammer
has two related problems.
The first is that while it might
be easy and cheap for those in the know to send out those initial email blasts, reeling
in the prey with a series of emails and phone calls is a labour-intensive business. The second is that very few people are gullible enough to fall for such scams.
Effectively, the problem is one of 'false positives': the scammer doesn't want to waste time engaging in conversation with people who will ultimately
not send money. Nine wasted conversations for every payday might not be a problem, but 9,999 conversations per payday are likely to be seriously unprofitable.
False positives are a common problem in many walks of life. Scanning for rare cancers has to be extremely accurate if it is not to lead to countless false alarms. Hunting for terrorists by sniffing for patterns in internet use or banking transactions is difficult because, thankfully, there are far more non-terrorists out there than terrorists. You simply don't have time to date all potential spouses to see how they work out — unless, of course, almost anyone will do.
One solution is to screen out people before taking further costly steps. Some books advise women to say no to anyone who suggests a date with less than three days' notice, thus conveying a sense of unavailability. I feel the tactic is more successful because it screens out selfish and disorganised suitors.
Now the email scam mystery is becoming clear. Those initial emails seem implausible because the fraudster — whether from Lagos, London
or Los Angeles — wants to screen out most potential responses before devoting attention to the few who remain. Claiming to be a West African dictator's widow will scare off anyone with any internet experience, who consults a friend, who checks Google, or who pays any advice to what his bank
is telling him. And, as Cormac Herley says, "Those who
remain are the scammers' ideal targets."
Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist
and author of Adapt: Why Success Always
Starts With Failure (Abacus, £8.99)
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