Much has been made in recent days of the publication by Microsoft Research of a paper detailing how and why Nigerian email scams work. The story went all over the news. It's not exactly groundbreaking work that provides unprecedented insight, but to those that had never looked at the issue from that angle, the conclusions were striking.
I had never looked at the issue from that angle. I had only ever found brief hilarity in these scams and then hit the delete button in my email client. I would have never been bothered to engage with the scammers in the hope of beating them at their own game and I've certainly never been tempted to take a word seriously of what was in these schematic emails. I was baffled that anyone could ever falls for these scams.
The sender is invariable Nigerian and tells, in broken or at least highly unorthodox English, an incredible story of betrayal, loss or legal injustice that magically transforms into a golden opportunity for the recipient of the email. Substantial financial assets are always involved – and need to be taken out of the country. The recipient is asked to facilitate the transaction, with the promise of a cut of the loot. Some minor financial outlay is demanded to get the process started.
There are alarm bells all over. The scams are instantly recognizable. According to the guys at Microsoft Research, they are supposed to be. Scamming is hard work. It takes time and the prospect of success is low. The straightforwardness and openness of the scam serves to filter out those that wouldn't be susceptible to it anyway. Only the gullible and the fools get sucked in, and no one should feel sorry for anyone falling for scams.
Scams are simply a tax on stupidity, more purely so than the lottery, which is frequently portrayed as the ultimate tax on stupidity. The story goes that it's a chance for those that don't know math to pay for their failure. But it's not as easy as that. Most people that play the lottery or engage in any kind of gambling are fully aware of the odds and that they're going to lose their money. They still do it, either because it's price worth paying for the dream of unimaginable riches or because it's entertaining.
I don't do the lottery and I've never gambled.Even when the jackpot stood at 50 million, I couldn't justify parting with my money. And when, on my first trip to Vegas, my dad suggested "losing twenty bucks on the roulette table" (his words), I told him I'd be happy for him to play but I wouldn't participate.
This is why it came as a surprise to me when I received a letter the other day that was from Euromilliones Loteria International, a multilingual affair that could easily be mistaken for Euro Millions, the transnational lottery famous for big jackpots. I had been one of 17 players who hit a 3rd category prize and could now claim my share of €15.5 million. €915,810 were waiting for me. All I had to do was call Señor Raúl Gómez in Spain.
The letter was unlike any scam I had encountered before. It didn't come as an email but in a believable looking envelope with name and address correctly printed on it. There was a stamp on it and a postmark from Granada.There were logos and tracking numbers and no spelling mistakes. I began to wonder. Maybe I had won after all.
It is curious how the human psyche works. For a few moments I was tempted to take a chance on the letter and act before the prize would fall to the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda in a month's time. Then reason kicked in: The number to call was a cell phone. The return address didn't match the postmark. While the envelope was addressed to me, the letter itself was anonymous. The former Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda is now called Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad. Most importantly: I have never bought a lottery ticket.
The letter was bogus. If I had more time and less to do, if I were retired (and lucid) in a village in Wales for example, I'd call and find out more, see what it'd take to get the dosh, mostly to see how much I'd have pay upfront in "processing fees". But I don't. I have recycled the bizarre document and am left to contemplate how scammers choose their victims. Shouldn't I be exempt from taxes on stupidity?