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Most of us know the signs: stilted English, "Dear Sir/Madam," a particular fondness for exclamation points. The occasional spam email that does make it past inbox filters seems transparently fake. And new findings by a Microsoft researcher suggest that’s exactly the point.
The researcher, Cormac Herley, looked into so-called “Nigerian scams,” named for the African nation where the scammers often claim to reside. The emails typically seek a cash investment and promise a lofty payoff, often linking themselves to off-shore corporations or royalty. Herley’s math-rich analysis found that the obvious spam clichés are a deliberate attempt to weed out potential victims who are too savvy to fall for the scheme—and in turn make the most of the human capital required to secure funds from the people who are duped.
"Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify," Herley writes, and the scheme ingeniously lines up the most gullible recipients in one swoop. Those who are left "represent a tiny subset of the overall population" but nevertheless a lucrative one for the spammers.
This also explains the apparent overabundance of the emails from Nigeria, since the country is so widely associated with Web scams. Though some of the first such schemes originated there in the 1980s during a period of high unemployment for well-educated young professionals, most launch elsewhere today, including the United States.
Far from the usual spam indictment, Herley’s study suggests applying the spammers’ logic in a larger context. Read it in full here.