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New research explains the ongoing ubiquity of Nigerian email scams

Given that you’re reading these words via the ‘net, it’s almost certain that you’ve received hundreds of emails over the past few years from generous Nigerian princes hoping for your assistance in moving a large amount of money. These emails promise that your help will be rewarded with some ludicrously large sum of cash, though this is always a ruse designed to catch your attention just long enough for the duplicitous sender to bilk you out of the “necessary” transaction fees that he claims will finally allow for the release of your new fortune.

Hopefully we aren’t being too controversial when we claim that absolutely no one has ever made beaucoup bucks from these sorts of deals. Well, other than the scammers.

But why? Why are we still receiving these emails more than a decade after they first became widespread public knowledge? At this point the country of Nigeria is synonymous with this sort of electronic sleight of hand, and yet scammers still largely claim to hail from the West African country. Don’t they realize that every intelligent Internet user sees that nation’s name as a flashing warning beacon to ignore whatever claims an email message might contain?

Of course they do, and that’s actually part of the scam, according to a new study written by Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley. While the .pdf version of the report goes into incredibly specific detail using an immense amount of math, the short version is that scammers are still name-dropping Nigeria in an effort to weed out the aforementioned intelligent Internet users. By immediately scaring off those folk, the scammers are massively increasing the odds that any prospective dupe who responds to their inquiry will be dumb enough to fall for the rest of their scam pitch. Since scammers send out millions of these emails, statistically speaking, they’re bound to find someone dumb enough to fall for the archaic plot, no matter how well known it has become, and those people are far more likely to hand over their life savings to a stranger on the ‘net in the hopes of receiving a fictional fortune in return than, say, you or I.

This rudimentary form of target selection is crucial to scammers. As the study points out, though sending emails is effectively free of charge, the scammers still have to put in a certain amount of time in writing the email and interacting with susceptible marks. This time investment can be seen as equivalent to a monetary investment on the part of the scammers, so by narrowing the field of people they have to spend time dealing with to only those most likely to fall for the scheme, the scammers have created a surprisingly efficient method of siphoning cash out of gullible victims.

We fully recommend reading the entirety of the Microsoft report, as it offers a sobering glimpse of the enormity and inventiveness of email scams in our modern era. Alternately, it may make you feel a whole lot better about yourself for automatically dumping any email including the word “Nigeria” into your Spam folder. Either way it’s useful info.

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