Why Scammers Say They're From Nigeria

We all get them: scam emails that claim to be able to make us millionaires overnight. But why are they so terribly unconvincing? And why do they even admit to being based in places like Nigeria? One Microsoft researcher claims to have the answer.

In particular, we're talking about the offers to cut you into a deal, which offer a healthy cut of the profits. They normally end up requiring a small transfer of money from the person who's being scammed to enable the deal to take place. Then another transfer of money, then another until... everything goes quiet.

These scams are normally know as "Nigerian scams", because that's where they tend to originate from. But you might also know them by their proper name: advance fee fraud. And they work! Last year, one Nigerian fraudster received a 12-year jail sentence after scamming $US1.3 million from victims.

But why on Earth are the emails written to sound so hugely unbelievable? Who the hell is going to fall for them?

Cormac Herley from Microsoft Research has been digging into the problem. He specialises in machine learning and has thrown a hell of a lot of maths at analysing the emails and their success rate. Fortunately, his finding is easy enough to understand: the scammers aren't interested in seeming believable. They just want to find the most gullible victims they can to maximise their return on their effort.

While emails are cheap for the scammers, you see, following through with responses and then initiating the process of getting money out of victims is both labour-intensive and expensive. So they want to wheedle out only those victims that they know they can scam easily. From Herley's paper:

"[I]f the goal is to maximise response to the email campaign it would seem that mentioning 'Nigeria' (a country that to many has become synonymous with scams) is counter-productive. One could hardly choose a worse place to claim to be from if the goal is to lure the unwary into email communication…

"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 recognised 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 [of search engines]. 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."

All of this makes me want to reply to some of these emails, just to annoy the scammers. [Miscrosfot via ComputerWorld]

Image: AresT/Shutterstock



    I give them the wrong information for my bank account. For the wrong bank.

    If you want to annoy them go to the 419eater.com site.

    This is exactly their purpose. You can also read up about stories of leading the scammers on.

      My favourite counter scam is the one where the guy had two nigerians in neighbouring villages going at once. He made them set up idols to his fake god and take pics to prove they were loyal to him before sending money, he then made them destroy each others idols.

      The ones with loafs of bread for shoes, a zuccini in their mouth while pouring milk on their head are also awesome.

        No. frkn. way, that is hilarious!!

    "It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or fiends".
    I often consult fiends about such fiendish plots. It's only logical.

      Many 'non-tech savvy' people consult the tech savvy in their family or friend circle about this type of thing.

      A prime example is the introduction of a computer in to my grandparents' house.
      They weren't silly enough to straight away hand over their details, but they weren't knowledgeable enough to recognise and ignore them, so they would often consult myself or my dad (Also in IT). Now they're regular computer users and are actually the one's telling US of hilarious scams they've come across.

      Giz readers are so quick to take a stab at anything they can, aren't they?


        I misread that comment :(

    It's also fun to bait Russian Vlads...

    A couple of years back I got a random Russian Girl looking for a friend email.. Wrote back from an email account I created (just to bait them) and wrote it as Yoda speaks.. Managed to keep the emails going back and forward for a month before they grew suspicious and never replied again.

    The same is going on with eBay. This week I tried to sell a mobile phone on eBay where the winner slected the outrageous buy it now option. They had a UK account, claimed to be in New Zealand at this point in time and wanted the item shipped to Nigeria. Massive scam. They tell you they hae sent payment and all then forge an email from paypal saying that payment has been cleared. Although the email mostly talks about how failure to send the item will result in certain doom for you. I simply told the individual to drop dead and cancelled the transaction/ reported them to eBay.... who didnt really seem to care based on the automatic email response I received.

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