According to a new study by researchers at Microsoft, there’s a reason those Nigerian email scams–you know, the ones you read, roll your eyes at, and immediately chuck into the spam folder–are so dang spammy sounding. You’d think if they were trying to maximize profits it might help to use proper spelling and grammar and come up with a less ridiculous premise. Or maybe not even mention Nigeria, which has become associated with the scams, at all.
Cormac Herley, the study’s author, writes, ”Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage.”
It turns out the Nigerian email scams provide a useful lesson: the value of attracting the right kind of customers and repelling the wrong ones.
Before we get to the details, here’s an example of this kind of filtering from Ramit Sethi‘s blog, I Will Teach you To Be Rich. Ramit has a bold, brash personality, and he’s not timid in his derision for “whiners” or in his commands for “stupid” readers to stay away:
Here, this disclaimer (which is pretty funny in its own right) works as a filter to:
1) Deter people who don’t like his brash persona/attitude (if you’re put off by this line, you aren’t going to like his other stuff), as well as repel people who aren’t actually interested in his strategy and tactics. Ramit earns a profit by turning readers into paying customers of his “prime” materials. Repelling those who aren’t likely to ever actually buy in saves him from wasting time communicating with these people, and frees up his energy to target those who are more likely to appreciate and buy his stuff.
2) Attract the right readers. I actually think this also has an effect on those who are not deterred by it. If you self-select yourself to pass through the “filter,” you’re left feeling good about the fact that you’re not one of these idiot people he talks about (or at least you don’t think you are), and feel more attached to the content.
So back to the Nigerian email scams.
To put it the way Ramit does, the Nigerian email scammers are essentially saying, “BTW THIS IS A SCAM, SO INTELLIGENT, NON-GULLIBLE PEOPLE SHOULD JUST LEAVE NOW AND NOT WASTE OUR TIME.”
As the Microsoft study explains, the ridiculously spammy nature of the emails helps filter out everyone but the people who are most likely to actually take the bait. It’s really difficult to pass through the filter: you have to be super gullible, naive and/or desperate (the study speculates that as few as 1/100,000 will actually buy in), so anyone with even a shred of skepticism won’t fall for the scam. This means the scammers will end up only having to interact with people who are really, really vulnerable.
Why don’t the scammers just target gullible people in the first place? The study mentions that sending out mass emails is cheap. “The best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify,” writes Herley. It’s more cost-effective to spam millions of people and let the gullible respond than to track down the gullible in the first place.
Whether or not this is just a coincidental by-product of really poor scam marketing, or a deliberate method created by savvy scammers (the study notes that even scammers who aren’t in Nigeria specifically use Nigeria in emails), it works.
What other examples of this kind of customer filtering have you seen?