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Techly Explains

Techly Explains: Why are scam emails always written so badly?

We’ve all got those emails before – the one where someone (they don’t have to be Nigerian royalty, but it helps) writes an abysmally spelled missive begging your financial assistance.

Of course, you’ll be handsomely rewarded for your generosity when your benefactee becomes the benefactor, and that’s precisely why they’ve got in touch with you – they just need you to help them out with an initial outlay, after which you’ll get rich quick.

They’re as obvious as they are poorly written. But what’s the deal with that second part? If you’re going to pull a scam using the internet – a means of mass communication whereby you could potentially make millions of people your mark – why not go to the effort of at least appearing you’ve had the education of a foreign aristocrat?

Also, why keep using such a well-worn trope? The Nigerian Prince is so well-known it’s been called a “419” scam, which, as the Australian Government’s Scamwatch website explains, “comes from the section of Nigeria’s Criminal Code which outlaws the practice”?

And Scamwatch have an entire page called “Nigerian scams”. Who’s falling for this?

Actually, the obviousness is the point.

In the 2012 paper “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?” for Microsoft Research, author Cormac Herley found that the point of the ridiculousness was to weed out “false positives”.

These are people who may respond, even strike up a consistent line of communication, but ultimately don’t send any money. In other words, a complete waste of time for scammers.

It’s important that first contact is a bit ridiculous, as it will serve to filter out the people who won’t ultimately come through with the goods (AKA be scammed).

“The initial email is effectively the attacker’s classifier: it determines who responds, and thus who the scammer attacks (i.e., enters into email conversation with),” Herley wrote.

“The goal of the email is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the non-viable ones, who greatly outnumber them. Failure to repel all but a tiny fraction of non-viable users will make the scheme unprofitable.”

A fascinating side note about the infamous ‘Nigerian Prince’

This particular scam has been doing the rounds for years. And not “start of the internet” years – we’re talking centuries!

In fact, it was originally known as the “Spanish Prisoner”, wherein a man of nobility was being unjustly imprisoned in Spain, and required you to help pay his bail. Once he was free, you’d be handsomely rewarded.

It was so widespread that the New York Times wrote a piece about it on March 20, 1898, which opens: “One of the oldest and most attractive and probably most successful swindles known to the police authorities has again come to the surface.”

Given it was already one of the oldest in 1898, we can only imagine how far back this scam goes.

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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