The fascinating method behind the “Nigeria Connection Spam”

Everyone knows these emails and has already received such emails themselves: A man or a woman, often with Asian, English or African-sounding name, and often an employee of an important-sounding foreign bank, has discovered a large sum of money in an account of the bank. The money does not belong to anyone and therefore the bank employee is looking for a “trusted partner” to whom the money can be transferred. The partner should manage the money and shall receive a certain portion of the money as compensation, this amount is easily in the millions.

The reader will smile now – the content of such e-mails cannot be believed and he would delete such an e-mail quickly. Nevertheless, one thing is surprising: these kind of e-mails appear again and again, albeit with different stories. So there remeins one question: If the described story in the e-mails is so outrageous, why then do such emails not disappear? Why will you always find such emails in your inbox ?

The quick answer to these questions is of course that there will probably always be someone “stupid” enough, who falls for such an e-mail. But how many are there? And if there are a few, how many of them indeed contact the sender, but then lose interest and stopp communicating with the sender? Is it worth it for the sender?

In their book “Think like a freak” – and I urge you to read it if you want to know more about thought processing – the authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner offer a very interesting analysis of the motivation behind the fraud e-mails now known as “Nigeria Connection Scam”. The two come to an intriguing answer to the question why these emails are still being sent. Levitt and Dubner base their answer on studies by Cormac Herley, a computer specialist at Microsoft Research.

Herley’s starting point was the question of why the scammers are so successful (according to various FBI and police files one can assume that the scammers have received millions of dollars from victims in the US alone), if the e-mails seem to be so obviously a fraud and if the scammers are apparently so “stupid” to send such emails that are so easily recognized as fraud e-mails. His approach in the study was to look at the matter with the eyes of the fraudsters. Which receiver would respond to an e-mail that screams “fraud”? Probably only a highly gullible person! But how can the fraudster identify such a person? In our internet age very easily: You just have to have a database with millions of e-mail addresses (you can buy them online) – and you send them all an email in which you promise the millions. But how is it possible to bring the gullible person to respond to such e-mail? This is the remarkable result of the investigation of Herley:

By deliberately designing an email that is completely exaggerated! The word “Nigeria” or the inclusion of any other African country is not avoided, but deliberately mentioned in the email. The amounts at stake are not just acceptable, but enormous. And the whole story about the money is outrageous. Any sensible person who receives such an email and reads it, will delete them as soon as possible – and that is intended by the sender. Because these people do not interest him. He is interested in the few people (of the millions who have received the email) that respond despite the hair-raising story. For here the probability is high that these are extremely gullible people who do not know or do not recognize – strange as it may sound for sensible ears – the scam. Who responds to such an email believes in the underlying story and is an easy target for the then subsequent fraud (how does the scam work out: before you can obtain the millions, various fees for documents are to be paid, travel expenses have to be accepted, various payments must be made, etc. The victim pays with respect of the soon to be expected millions and the more you pay, the more you believe the fraudulent story …).

There’s still one question left: Are the fraudsters really stupid by sending such emails – or rather extremely clever?

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