Spam and the separating equilibrium

by on June 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm in Economics | Permalink

From Jeffrey Bloomer:

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 algorithm-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.

For the pointer I thank Claire A. Hill.

Steve Sailer June 21, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I am Achoya, only natural son of deposed god-emperor Mbube.

Actually, the main reason I claim to be from Nigeria is because I am from Nigeria, which makes the part where I meet the sucker in person for the transfer go much more smoothly than if I had claimed to Vladimir Putin’s brother-in-law.

Jonathan June 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Actually the scammer do not usually claim to reside from Nigeria, they usually do reside there, but claim to be from anywhere, there is no bias in that case.

Andrew' June 21, 2012 at 1:31 pm

There was this guy from South Africa who liked to have his friends set up blind dates with an “African American.”

If the girl was pleasantly surprised, that was good, if the girl was mildly disappointed that was great!

Theresa Heinz-Kerry June 22, 2012 at 12:55 am

If the birds you remember, the fruits you ate, or the trees you climbed are African, you can call yourself an African American.

Douglas Knight June 21, 2012 at 1:49 pm

The paper is almost purely theoretical, the only data being that spammers claim to be from Nigeria.

There’s nothing wrong with putting forward a hypothesis. But the coverage this paper has received is full of lies.

Seebs June 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I don’t think that’s quite the only information. See, we also know that the scammers are still doing it, and that the scams have evolved substantially over time. Consider the couple of years during which a popular gimmick was to claim to be involved in recovering funds that people had been scammed out of; that came and went.

So we have pretty good evidence that the tactic is effective, and that others are not as effective.

oli June 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Out of boredom i sometimes reply to the most ridiculous of these claims. Does that mean I’ve been marked as a gullible moron according to their lists and face an abundance of spam in the future?

Slocum June 21, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Perhaps. But if this paper is correct, it means you are doing a good deed — you a ‘false positive’ that wastes the scammer’s time and energy and makes it harder for him to find the truly gullible. So keep it up!

RR June 22, 2012 at 12:16 am

+1

Mark June 22, 2012 at 7:20 am

+2

yf June 21, 2012 at 1:56 pm

The world is full of gullible people that clever people can take advantage of. In fact, I’ve developed a book and seminar that explains in 5 easy steps how to setup your own nigerian scam from the comfort of your own home. It’s worked for me and it can work for you too!

Brian Donohue June 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm

$$$$$$

MPS June 21, 2012 at 2:01 pm

This reminds me of those magnet / hologram bracelets some people wear. These advertise gullibility for you.

JWatts June 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Which is of course their primary benefit. ;)

Mark Thorson June 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

The world is full of fools. That will never change. Should parting these fools from their money really be considered a crime? Isn’t it more like a lion catching and eating a hyena? That is, a morally neutral event? If we say that it must be stopped, what about the other money-making scams that snare fools, such as religion?

I ran amok in Kent June 21, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Why not add, say, rape to your list of ‘morally neutral’ events?
Any fool who does not protect their drink surely cannot complain if they are drugged and abducted.

In fact, why not make anyone slightly less intelligent than (the genius) Mark Thorson a slave of their superiors?

Mark Thorson June 21, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Rape is a violent assault against the victim. The victim bears no responsiblity for being a victim. But falling for a Nigerian scam is the height of stupidity. Shouldn’t the putative victim accept some responsibility for that? Take this case, for example:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162634

Why is that case even in court? Those girls deserve the humiliation they got. They deserve it for being fools. How about if I tell you that by giving me 10% of your income, I’ll fix it with God so that you go to Heaven after you die? Should that be illegal? It’s exactly the same principle.

Rahul June 21, 2012 at 6:22 pm

The fact that the victims are stupid need not condone the malice of the perpetrators. Unless you assume stupid people deserve to be exploited.

Mark Thorson June 21, 2012 at 6:38 pm

You’re assuming malice on the part of the people operating under the Nigerian franchise. When a lion catches and eats a hyena, is there any malice involved?

I ran amok in Kent June 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm

If a rapist, raped with a heart full of love, would his lack of malice make the rape a morally neutral event?

Mark Thorson June 21, 2012 at 7:41 pm

It would still be a violent assault on a blameless victim, so no.

Rahul June 22, 2012 at 1:01 am

Isn’t mens rea a requirement for successful prosecution?

doctorpat June 22, 2012 at 2:29 am

Your attempt to smear athiests as amoral is noted.

Mark B June 22, 2012 at 7:24 am

What Thorson misses is that humans defend each other as a function of operating in a society. The ultimate expression of “let the stupid die” is anarchy. Each man for himself.

Excuse me – this lifeboat is mine— bye-eee!

The paper is an excellent one, and provides a great deal of insight and useful analysis.

Fred smalkin June 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm

“Herley’s algorithm-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.”

It took an “algorithm-rich analysis” to figure that out?

Gullible June 21, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Gullibility is not a fixed trait that can be screened more (or less) efficiently. Rather, it depends on how clever the scammer is. If you send an email with plenty of grammar errors and a hard to believe story, you get a couple of fools to give you their money. If you set up a better scheme (a bank? a start-up during the bubble?), you can get a lot of “smart” people to do the same. That said, has anyone compared the effectiveness of different kinds of email scams?

Wonks Anonymous June 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Kudos to Slate, which followed up on a previous post on this paper by clarifying that yes, indeed, 419 scammers are indeed largely from Lagos.
The only reason claiming to be a Nigerian is such a big warning sign in the first place is because 419 is so big in Nigeria.

TallDave June 21, 2012 at 10:46 pm

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.

Those poor exploited Nigerians. Or something.

Tangurena June 22, 2012 at 10:26 am

I remember one small company (that I worked at during the 90s) getting more than one of these via “snail mail”. The stamps and postmark were indeed from Nigeria (the postage ran about 25 cents with the official exchange rate at the time, so this was not the shotgun approach that today’s spammers enjoy). That company had a very cyclical business and there were a lot of “lows” where the combination of desperation and gullibility of the owners worried me that they’d fall for the scam.

Seebs June 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Wow! I have written about this before (can’t spot anything in my blog, but I’ve mentioned it on mailing lists a few times), but it’s nice to see that the theory is actually supported by evidence. Cool beans!

Mark June 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm

And sometimes the perpetrators are the gullible ones.

http://www.wendywillcox.50megs.com/

Assuming it’s true, this too sends a false positive and imposes costs on the scammers.

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