Okay, it’s doesn’t have the ring to it that immortalized Lynyrd Skynyrd and the iconic Sweet Home Alabama, but as it turns out, it’s okay when things coming out of Nigeria appear a little – or, in the case of spam, a lot – broken. The butt of many a joke, the Nigerian royalty scam, typically called an ‘advanced fee’ scam but better known as 419 spam (named after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraudulent activity) has long been laughable and just plain outrageous. This is due in large part to its notoriously atrocious English, which incites images of morons with crayons scribbling their first drafts on rubber walls and in large part the vast unlikelihood of the scam’s scenario: a member of the Nigerian royal family, stuck in the horrible position of sitting on several millions of dollars, desperately needing to get the funds out of the country, if only he could find a patsy stupid enough to send him a small good faith money transfer to kick off the process. This example, although not citing Nigeria, is an actual email I received a couple of weeks ago:
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. I AM LEGALLY MARRIED TO MR. JOSHUA DUNU, A GHANAIN CITIZEN BORN BROUGHT UP IN CANADA, I LIVE IN CANADA WITH MY HUSBAND FOR 32 YEARS BEFORE WE MOVE DOWN TO GHANA WEST AFRICA IN 1985 AFTER MY HUSBAND RETIREMENT IN 1981, I AM 79 YEARS OLD BY THE GRACE OF GOD, I AM A NEW CHRISTIAN CONVERT, SUFFERING FROM LONG TIME CANCER…
Blah, blah, blah and so-on. I don’t know why they feel the need to SHOUT, but junk like this seems like more work than it’s worth. Seriously, who falls for this? Believe it or not, this scam has miraculously reaped success for the 419ers. Two years ago, a 31 year old Nigerian man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for scamming more than $1.3 million out of unsuspecting Americans and other foreign nationals. In another case, a woman – oddly enough, from Sweet Home, Oregon – is out $400,000 because of this scam.
Doesn’t make any sense, does it? Well, this week a researcher at Microsoft finally started to make some sense of the 419 scam, and ohhhh man, does it make sense. In the study entitled “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?” Cormac Herley unravels a nasty little secret about the spam artists that seemed so unfathomable, and yet is so obvious. It’s not an easy read – I suppose you don’t get the title of Principal Researcher without growing accustomed to backing up your data with Calculus – but it does contain some interesting nuggets. In his study, Herley discovers, the 419 scammers are intentionally dumbing down their message.
The Scam’s the Thing…
Yes, you read that right. The scammers are using stupidity as a weapon, it would seem, narrowing down the actual number of people who respond to this type of scam to only the most gullible Internet users. By keeping it dumb, Herley discovered, the scammers aren’t faced with high numbers of false positives – people who respond at first because the email appears to be a legitimate request, but then quickly catch on to the scam. As a result, the scammers aren’t wasting their time on those who can’t be scammed, and instead prey only on those who can be considered to be legitimate targets.
“Why so little imagination?” Herley queries. Why don’t Nigerian scammers claim to be from some other country? Stupidity, he points out, is an unsatisfactory answer. “The scam requires skill in manipulation, considerable inventiveness and mastery of a language that is non-native for a majority of Nigerians.”
In fact, the scam is designed to weed out those who might make the scammers lives more difficult.
‘Nigerian Scam’, Herley points out, “is one of five suggested auto-completes in a Google search for Nigeria” If the goal was to maximize response to e-mails, it hardly makes sense to mention Nigeria. But who are the most likely targets? “Since the scam is entirely one of manipulation he would like to attack (i.e., enter into correspondence with) only those who are most gullible.”