Consumer IQ

Are You Smarter Than a Scammer?

spam email

The pitch was obviously fraudulent: it promised a “free” iPad 3. All I had to do was click on a link, fill out a form — and you can probably guess the rest.

If I had fallen for it, I would have ended up with a stolen identity or hijacked Facebook account. But a “free” iPad 3? No way.

Here’s the interesting thing: the digital come-on didn’t arrive in my inbox — it was sent to my 10-year-old son.

The classic Nigerian scam.

Scammers are a lot smarter than you think. Consider the Nigerian variety. You know, the ones that start like this:

ATTN: BENEFICIARY

RE: INHERITANCE FUND TRANSFER NOTIFICATION

WE HAVE RECEIVED AN INSTRUCTION FROM THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY, THE FEDERAL MINISTRY OF FINANCE (FMF), AND THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN PAYMENTS (SCFP), TO PAY YOU YOUR CONTRACT/INHERITANCE FUND FROM OUR BANK (CENTRAL BANK OF NIGERIA) IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE HSBC BANK LONDON.

Does it look familiar?  Check your spam box if you want to see a few more examples.

Why do people keep falling for it?

If you’ve ever wondered why scammers continue to use these silly, all-uppercase form letters, you might want to read this research paper (PDF) from Cormac Herley, a principal researcher in the Machine Learning Department at Microsoft Research. Herley suggests these pitches work because only the most gullible recipients respond to them.

“The most profitable strategy requires accurately distinguishing viable from non-viable users, and balancing the relative costs of true and false positives,” he writes.

The Nigerian scammers could craft more sophisticated emails, which might draw out more responses. But it would be too much work to convince the more savvy users to take the bait. It’s far easier to blanket the Internet with these dumbed-down offers in hopes of attracting a few responses from recipients who are likely to fall for it with minimum effort.

I guess sometimes being smart means playing dumb.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the “free” iPad offer didn’t work on my 10-year-old.

“It’s a scam,” he declared before deleting it. “Everything is a scam.”

That’s not a bad attitude to have at age 10, but at some point, you’ll have to make a purchase and figuring out the difference between a legit offer and a bogus one — well, it turns out it’s not so easy.

Top 3 scam strategies.

The fraudsters employ a variety of tools to get in your pocket. Consider just three of the following scam strategies:

Targeting — using fraudulently-obtained email passwords to make a pitch or reverse targeting (see above), which uses fake-looking pitches to draw out the most susceptible victims.

Bait and switch — offering one product and then swapping it out for another. Or simply offering one that doesn’t exist at all.

Money wiring — just wire the funds and we’ll send you the product (honestly!).

Now, add the scammers’ uncanny insights into human nature. They seem to know what we want, whether it’s the sought-after iPad 3 or the long-lost “inheritance.” There’s always a willing audience they can connect with. In my last post, I reviewed a few of these innovative new offers. The possibilities are endless.

Needless to say, the fraudsters are smart and creative — maybe smarter and more creative than we’re willing to give them credit for. For them, taking our money is more than an occupation — it’s a calling. They are separating us from our hard-earned cash because they think we deserve it.

Many of us fell for their stupid Nigerian pitch letter. And, unfortunately, some of us will still continue to fall for it.

PS — By the way, here’s a list of where the scammiest African cons come from, according to Microsoft.

1. Nigeria
2. South Africa
3. Zaire/Congo
4. Zimbabwe
5. Sierra Leone
6. Angola
7. Ivory Coast
8. Liberia
9. Togo

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.