We’ve all seen them – poorly constructed sentences in long winding emails about diplomats, infrastructure projects, or legal bequeathes that promise eye-watering commissions for helping move money out of Nigeria. To almost all of us they are as poorly written as their lack of effectivness. But to think that is wrong – they are one of the best crafted target-market finders out there.

Cormac Herley works at Microsoft Research in Redmond, USA, and wrote a paper about the problems of false positives from a hacker/attacker point-of-view. spammers_are_lazy_marketers_tshirt-rf07e726fe8a245278d8be65a5324a04c_f0czj_512It is not as technical as it sounds, particularly as it’s titled ‘Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?‘. He asks why email confidence tricksters don’t place themselves from ‘Turkey, or Portugal or Switzerland or New Jersey?’ It is an interesting question, because with today’s digitally enabled movement of data and capital around the globe where a trickster is actually located is neither here nor there. So why do more than half of all scammers claim to be from Nigeria?

To avoid false positives.

Show yourself

The scam begins with few costs other than that of batch-sending a pre-written email. Cormac goes on to say

“Only when potential victims respond does the labor-intensive and costly effort of following up by email (and sometimes phone) begin. “

And this is where the genius of using a well-known scam format comes into its own – at this point you want only the most gullible to show themselves, because they are the ones worth spending individual time and effort on to seal the scam, so using a format that cuts almost everyone else out is the perfect way to find your target market. Or, have them find you.

As Cormac says

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

But don’t show too much

It is an approach that doesn’t want to increase the level of response – which it could easily do by placing the confederate in Holland, and spin a different story – because this means increasing the ratio of ‘viable’ to ‘non-viables’ in a way that eliminates profitability. When you see this type of scam and spam (including things such as penis enlargement, and viagra offers) it is clear that the amount of wastage is high, the cost of delivery are low, and the outcome is the target show themselves.


No scam is good, especially for those that are scammed, but the eradication of false positives by setting context is something communicators can learn from. And the normal run of (legal) businesses that we all work for or with are a good place to start. (And remain, or course.)

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• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
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