Do Your Patriotic Duty, Reply to Nigerian Scam Emails

20 Jun
Nigerian Scam by B Rosen

Photo credit to B RosenHow

Microsoft recently released a study, Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?, that made me geek out in so many ways. Microsoft’s research team undertook to statistically explain the “give me money, I’m a Nigerian price” ruse that so many of us have seen in our inboxes.

If you’re at all like me, you’ve received this kind of email and laughed at it, thinking othat nly the most gullible person would fall for it. Turns out, you’re right and that’s the point. As Microsoft’s paper explains (in all of its statistical glory), the Nigerian prince scam is designed in a way so as to alienate all but the most gullible email recepients.  At first, a con that immediately disqualifies potential victims doesn’t seem to make sense. After all, these types of things succeed because of the sheer volume of them; the emails cost nothing to send and the  success of the attack comes in its scalability.

Nigerian Scan by Chris Fritz

Photo credit to Chris Fritz

But the con artists’s real work, and cost, comes in responding to the rubes who reply to his email. All that work —  stringing them along, telling his sob story, and finally, convincing them to send him the money — it takes time, and time is money.

Microsoft’s study seeks to understand the incentives at work on the scammer. Treating him as a rational actor, it explains why he chooses to purposely write an email that alienates almost all recipients —  how this is a rational decision that maximizes his predicted financial outcome. By turning off more people who are likely to eventually catch on to the scam right of the bat, the scammer increases his chances of success in his time and cost intensive follow-up work. (For those of you who want the stats explanation, the obviousness of this con is meant to prevent false positives, those who reply but are unlikely to show him the money.  This increases his true positive to false positive ratio, thus increasing the percentage of those who will eventually send money in the group that reply to the email, and therefore his net profit.)

Scam Truck by jepoirrier

Photo credit to jepoirrier

As Microsoft explains it,

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 such as shown in Figure 8 [shows that “Nigerian scam” is one of the top five auto-complete suggestions for “Nigeria”] . It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or fiends, 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.

By creating an email that’s so off-putting to the vast majority of recipients, the scammer increases his success rate with those who respond, but also alienates some of the people who may have been likely to respond if the email hadn’t been quite so obviously malicious. (Stats explanation: it pushes him further to the left on the ROC curve, causing him to lose true positives in his quest to lose false positives.) The decision to claim the ridiculous and well-known mantle of the Nigerian prince is good for the scammer and good of society. Good for the scammer because he increases his net profit and good for society because less people fall victim to the scam.

Piece of the pie by nsmithtnz

Photo credit to nsmithtnz

So, why should you reply to the email from the Nigerian prince? Because doing so increases his false positive rate and costs him. If he’s a rational actor, an increase in his false positive rate will lead to him being even more selective in those who he targets — and he’ll accomplish this by making his initial email even more ridiculous. In an effort to increase his true positive to false positive ratio, he’ll proactively cut potential false positives off at the pass. At which point, we’ll all be getting emails about Nigerian princes and their alien lovers. By making his initial pitch an even more obvious scam, he’ll be acting in his own best interest, but the net effect will be that fewer people will fall victim to the con.

This cycle, of driving the scammer to send more and more obviously malicious emails can go on ad nauseum. And, so can your responses to them. In his own economic interest he’ll keep getting more and more obvious.  The social good that comes of this is that fewer and fewer people will fall victim to his scam, and the net social cost of the con will decrease.  If enough people respond to him, and force him to waste his limited resources in replying to false positives, the economics of the scam flip and it ends up costing him money. As a rational actor, the con artist won’t engage in an operation that will be a net drain on his resources and he’ll stop.

Shrinking Machine by Explore the Bruce

Photo credit to Explore the Bruce

So, do your duty. Tell him you’d like to buy a share in his diamond money or yeah, you remember that aunt who moved over to Nigeria and you’re so glad to hear the she mentioned you in her will. Enjoy it and drag it out as long as you can — increase his costs as much as you can. Who knows, you might be the tipping point that puts him out of business.

Questions of the day: Have you ever replied to a spam email? Knowingly or unknowingly? Have I convinced you to reply from now on? If so, what are you going to tell the Nigerian prince?


Formerly MaggieCakes, Maggie (not Margaret) covers technology’s impact on culture, specifically on how we interact or connect with each other. Have a question or an idea you’d like me to write about? Leave a comment, or send me an e-mail: moc.teragramtoneiggam@eiggam

4 Responses to “Do Your Patriotic Duty, Reply to Nigerian Scam Emails”

  1. Gordon Fong June 25, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    I was thinking something similar to this the other day. My thoughts were along the lines of a robot that showed a little bit of AI to respond and drag it out. If we all had enough of these bots running, then it was drain their resources like you say. How about having a Nigerian Email Scam Week, where we all reply to one that week for fun.

    • Maggie O'Toole June 25, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

      I think that would be an awesome week! (It would probably make a lot more sense that some of the weeks/days/months you hear about.) And, you’re thought about the AI are right on with what Microsoft proposed. Apparently some people, let’s think of them as no so masked vigilantes, set up banks of computers with AI for this very purpose.

  2. lostintheservice July 28, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    I think your point that replying to these scam emails would cause them to have more false positives and thus decrease their success rate is solid. However, I worry that my response to any such email would turn my email address into a target for more of the scams. I have enough spam in my life already, I do believe.

  3. Tony Markey August 22, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    I love it! I even have suggested text 😀

    http://www.tonymarkey.info/dear-nigerian-prince.html

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