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Why Nigerian Bank Scams Are So Obvious

The old “Nigerian bank scam” is so laughably obvious that nobody could possibly fall for it anymore, right? Not so, and some new research suggests that its cheesiness is actually deliberate.

The plaintive appeal to wire money to a certain displaced Nigerian prince is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It’s so obviously bogus that it’s become the archetype of low-end spam. Everybody’s seen it a hundred times, and even the dumbest spam filter can spot it a mile off. The very presence of the word “Nigeria” sets off alarms. Can’t the stupid spammers come up with even a little improvement on the old formula?

Nope, and for good reason. In a paper from Microsoft Research, Cormac Herley explains that the scam’s obviousness is deliberate. It’s carefully designed to appeal to only the most gullible segment of the population. Unlike most other types of spam or phishing scams, he explains, the Nigerian bank scam requires the scammer to put in some effort to reel in his victims. Thus, it’s in his best interest to hook only the dumbest and most gullible targets and avoid the (relatively) smart ones. He doesn’t want to waste time luring potential victims who might later see through his scheme and alert the authorities or waste his time. Only the dumbest need apply.

“Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify… 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 unpro?table.”

So count yourself lucky that you recognize the scam when you see it. And stand in wonder at those who don’t.

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