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So you think you’re clever? Three things you can learn from email scammers

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As fundraisers we often think we’re very clever – using sophisticated techniques from marketing, from neuroscience and from psychology to share and organise our powerful and engaging messages.

When we’re feeling down about our low response rates – clearly the failing of our unsophisticated audience – we can always go into our spam folders to laugh at the rubbish emails scammers send. I mean, how dire can you get? These people send out really badly spelled emails. With improbable propositions. They even mention they’re from Nigeria[1] – often, unfairly, seen as a centre for fraud. (You know the format “My uncle was the oil minister of Nigeria and deposited $20 million in a foreign bank account. Because of government controls, I can’t access the cash. But, if you help by just sending me your bank details and a little upfront cash, I’ll give you half of the money we recover.”)

Email scam

But pause a moment. If this approach doesn’t work why are there so many of them around, and why do we read in the media all the time about people who have fallen for them?

Researching my new book on behavioural economics I came across a great piece of research by Microsoft cybercrime expert Cormac Herley. He’s studied literally thousands of these scammers – he calls them 419-ers – and believes there is a discipline and logic behind their techniques. His conclusions represent a ‘dark side’ of decision science.

His basic premise is that the scammers are looking for the fastest route possible to the most gullible people. So they deliberately insert errors and inappropriate bits of messaging to quickly establish who’s their target market – i.e. people who are credulous and who think they are probably smarter than the people writing to them. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect by the way.)

I think you can distil his impressive, well written, and slightly academic paper down to three simple lessons that might hold some learning for those of us who are not scammers:

  • Lose the critical thinkers early on: job one is actually to ‘turn off’ unlikely prospects first. Mentioning Nigeria, making the rewards improbably big, having misspellings, etc. means any critical thinkers receiving the email drop out. The result is the scammers are left with really naïve – and often. Sadly. vulnerable – people. (Also the critical thinkers might try and report you to the authorities. They need to think – ‘no one would fall for this…’)
  • Focus on the targets: to make money the scammers have to convince their ‘marks’ – targets – to share personal details, keep the whole business secret, and eventually send cash. The targets will get suspicious at some point, and most will drop out of the process. So the scammers have to give key marks individual attention – personal emails, phone/Skype calls, etc. These take time and effort, which means the scammers need to identify and focus on the likely targets as soon as possible.
  • Build a relationship: if you’ve ever written back to a scammer you’ll know that they are keen to build a step-by-step relationship with you. They ask you abut your family and tell you about theirs – even sharing anecdotes about the sadly departed uncle whose untimely death screwed up arranging the cash for the nephew. They usually begin small and ask you to share minor bits of information as they build trust, gradually upping the scale of the ‘sharing.’ (And may use a similar technique to offer dating opportunities under another identity

By applying these principles, the scammer doesn’t waste time dealing with lots of potentials who won’t go anywhere, and can instead focus on converting more ‘realistic’ victims – maximising, to use the jargon, their RoI. Even if a few possible prospects are lost by making the ‘pitch’ really improbable, the higher ratio of victims in the revised set makes the process significantly more profitable. Herley says, “By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.”

Interesting, but why should you care? Well often fundraisers spend lots of time and looking for a wider supporter cluster, trying to convince the skeptical, or moving too quickly to ask for an early high value gift.

Maybe we should focus on the people who we know are likely to be open to our ideas and approaches. Then work to build relationships with them.

And maybe spend less time being clever?

This blog draws on the article by Cormac Herley.

[1] They’re not even very good at geography since they seem unaware there are other West African nations apart form Nigeria.

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Bernard Ross

About Bernard Ross

Bernard is an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organisational change and personal effectiveness. He works in Europe, USA, Africa and South America. His assignments have involved a wide range...