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Why do scammers persist in saying they are from Nigeria?

A research report by Cormac Herley, a Microsoft security analyst, proposes a clever response to an apparent paradox. Nearly everyone minimally competent in Internet use knows about the Nigerian 419 scam. For the few others, this is the con: an unsolicited email arrives in your inbox, purporting to be a letter from an attorney who informs the receiver that a large fortune can be made. The attorney needs the help of a person outside Nigeria to transfer large amounts of money abroad, and offers generously to share the boon with this co-operator. The scam works when a victim contacts the conmen and is persuaded to send advance payments to facilitate the alleged financial transactions. Many have fallen for this trick, losing thousands of dollars (and sometimes more) in the process. Smart email security filters most of these emails and most of us delete those that appear in our Inbox even without opening them or reading more than a few lines because we are “in the know”.

If the scam is so well-known, why don’t perpetrators change their routine? Why mention a fortune in Nigeria, when the vast majority of receivers will instantly delete the message? Herley has a provoking answer which is interesting for researchers studying the transmission and reproduction of social representations. The answer in a nutshell is this: Almost all users know about the scam and will ignore the email, but not all. The (very) few remaining ones will open the email, read the letter and will think about the content. And here is the rub: these few users present a much higher rate of success for scammers (meaning interaction, persuasion and cashing in) than the numerous others.

If you have opened a Nigerian letter and perused the contents, you have self-identified as a naive individual who does not know about the “Nigerian letter scam”. Such lack of web-savviness is a good predictor (albeit imperfect) of general gullibility, lack of information about how the world works, unenlightened greed, unchecked curiosity or an inclination to magical thinking, all of them being the kind of propensities that scammers desire in a potential victim.

Such a naive user would also fall for a letter coming from an attorney in Romania, Paraguay or New Zealand. The problem is that diverging from the Nigerian format will bring in more users which are less gullible. These users are still potential victims, but there is a lower chance of taking them all the way to the point of financial trickery. If scams were costless affairs, this would be unproblematic, but the con artist also bears costs: time, effort, risk of being reported, international phone calls, etc. One would like to improve efficiency by selecting targets, but the identity of receivers is utterly unknown. The solution explains the counterintuitiveness of persisting Nigerian letters: the targets select themselves by demonstrating poor Internet skills and, presumably, their vulnerability to scams. By keeping with the Nigerian format, the con artist gains in the trade-off between avoiding false positives and losing potential victims.
Cormac Herley offers an intricate mathematical demonstration of how low levels of potential targets make optimal such a strategy, but the general explanation is simple and elegant. However, it is not entirely unproblematic. Paying attention especially to online activity, the analysis overlooks alternative processes in the offline world.

In some cases, victims travel to the site to make sure that the business is legitimate; in a story I once heard, con artists received an American “partner” in Governmental offices, one of them impersonating a Minister attesting to the bona-fide of the affair. This requires local expertise which is hard to obtain far from home. If the scammer is Nigerian and impersonates a Romanian, it would be difficult and costly to send pictures, documents or bank accounts from Romania. A foreign accomplice could help, but this leads to the further problem of notoriously low trust between thieves linked by superficial social relationships. On the other hand, there is a large Nigerian diaspora in developed countries, especially the UK, which offers scammers a pool of relatively more trustworthy accomplices to contact victims and carry the con further.

A strong test of Herley’s hypothesis may be the real origin of actors, as a substantial number of scammers falsely pretending to be from Nigeria (and bearing the aforementioned costs) would offer some support for his model. Even this possibility is open to alternative explanations. Perhaps Nigeria is an easier place to organise such a scam than e.g. Romania, given the cooperation of corrupt officials, dubious banking practices, weak law enforcement, etc, not to mention an existing institutional blueprint used for previous successes, Moreover, Nigeria evokes auspicious representations for the story: an African country which is relatively well known abroad, with an exotic image of vast fortunes made from natural resources with much of oil revenue siphoned by informal channels. Somalia is also well-known, but hardly for its wealth. Equatorial Guinea is richer (and more corrupt) than Nigeria, but relatively unknown to the general public.

Another reason for the persistence of the “Nigerian” format could be traced to the scam’s social reproduction. Presumably, the scam originated with some Nigerian enterprising individuals. Their initial success made others copy their methods. These subsequent waves consisted of relatives or friends of initiators, themselves mostly Nigerians. Basile Ndjio writes that a majority of 419 scammers are Igbo ethnics, confirming the hypothesis of social transmission along offline social relationships. Herley’s data shows that, besides Nigeria, neighbouring West African countries are the most likely countries mentioned in the scam, suggesting imitation by people close to the first wave, given the social ties between West African populations where ethnic and kin groups extend across national borders. The persistent format could thus be explained by the imitation of successful individuals and their methods, rather than a conscious decision to target gullible individuals by means of content. In addition, newcomers to the scam business have less resources than already established ones, meaning lower possibilities for investment in overseas arrangements to avoid the cliche. Since the Nigerian format has worked so well in the past and it is affordable, why change it?

Perhaps the weakest point in Herley’s proposal is the absence of data on success rates. He analyses the frequency in titles of sent emails, but does not discuss which kind of emails manage to persuade victims (and one could see why this is difficult to find out). Perhaps the web is flooded with “Nigerian” emails sent by neophyte scammers, but they are largely unsuccessful, while a small number of emails with non-Nigerian content has a larger rate of profitability. In this case, the persisting Nigerian format is not way to screen out false positives, but the weapon of the weak scammer who can do nothing more than hope for a once-in-a-lifetime sucker.

All this being said, Herley’s explanation is thought-provoking and may still be accurate even given other mechanisms at work. For those who study culture and cognition, it provides an interesting theoretical account which articulates a population-thinking approach with individual level cognitive biases and content interpretation. For those interested in comparison, I have written in a ICCI blogpost about a similar way of using communication content to discriminate naive victims from experts in the case of fool’s errands.
Comments (4)
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 19:57
Thanks Radu for providing though-provoking instances where epistemic vigilance fails to filter out false information. 

Your two posts on the targets of fool's errands and scams raise the question: are the victims less epistemically vigilant than is usually the case?

It seems that authors of fool's errands and scams exploit the normal mechanisms of epistemic vigilance. In the case of fool's errands, as you nicely explained, they exploit expert status. For instance, if you are a newcomer in a construction site, the best thing for you to do is to trust what a veteran tells you, and go for the "pipe-stretcher" ... whatever this might be. Your trust is well calibrated to the situation thanks to your epistemic vigilance, and this is exploited by the authoritative person making the joke.
In the case of scams, you point out all the argumentation that comes with a mail and the ensuing procedures. Your alternative explanation of the persistence of Nigeria in scams is to say that, for historical reasons, the place allows for low cost production of arguments. If Herley's filtering hypothesis is true, then those that are filtered out are those that know about scams more than those that are more epistemically vigilant.

Cognitive mechanisms of epistemic vigilance are not foolproof mechanisms. Bounded rationality applies to all domains. So vigilant people can be tricked in believing false information.

This is why I'm wondering whether what is targeted in fool's errands and scams is:
(a) personality traits taking the form of general gullibility and low epistemic vigilance, or
(b) ignorance in some specific domains and the communicative context

Thanks Christophe for this engaging reply with a number of very important points!. It is evident that, in both cases, victim’s epistemic vigilance is bypassed by deceivers, but mechanisms of deception are different. Scams exploit mainly individual-level weakness, while fool’s errands use institutional-level affordances. Therefore, their respective strategies of targeting victims are distinct.

Let us suppose that there is a characteristic (or a set thereof) which determines the functioning of epistemic vigilance, and let us suppose that this characteristic varies between individuals. Simply put, some individuals are more gullible than others, everything else being held constant. These individuals are unversed in worldly matters, or they have an inclination to believe everything they are being told, or an inclination to trust everyone. Maybe they present a combination of these features. Among these, only the most gullible ones would fall for a 419 Nigerian scam. (I am referring to current circumstances, not to those of initial scams). You must have never paid attention to web security to have never heard about the scam, and you must be very trusting of people to put your money into their hands, or as greedy as to make you blind to the telltale signs. I’d say you are lot more gullible than almost everyone I know - your characteristics of epistemic vigilance make you a clear outlier.

But victims of fool’s errands are no outliers. Although, (in my estimation) most novice workers fall for the prank, I would consider their epistemic vigilance as entirely warranted by the situation. By warranted, I mean that they are as vigilant as required to function as competent social actors given that they know apprentices should trust their masters, that their technical competence is low and obscure terms will appear in conversations, etc. They know no more and no less than the average novice and are as gullible (in terms of personal characteristics - see above) as the next guy. Moreover, they are as epistemically vigilant when they leave to search for a “pipe-stretcher” as when searching for a “round about” (a real tool with funny-sounding name used for pipelines). What differentiates a fool’s errand from a normal request is the malicious intention of pranksters. The “initiated” know that victims cannot tell the difference between a real and an imaginary tool, that victims trust them with expertise and professionalism, etc. The dice are loaded from the start against the “fool”, and the prankster knows it.

To sum up, I would say that deceivers in each case are angling for different fish in different waters. 419’ers search for the easy prey, the most gullible individuals from an immense pool of unknown recipients. They send out the lure and expect the golden fish, yet know nothing about potential victims. Organisers of fool’s errands are shooting fish in a barrel, since they have control over specific victims in advantageous institutional settings ( distribution of knowledge,structure of command, authority of social roles, etc). This explains the vast difference in success rates between the two forms of deception: one is addressed to millions of users to “capture” a few, the other aims at a handful to ensnare most of them. In order to make the contrast clearer, I venture to say that most people tricked in “fool’s errands” would avoid Nigerian scams. A victim of 419 starting as an apprentice is doomed by the double handicap of institutionalised ignorance and personal gullibility. On a more amusing line, 419 artists would like to replicate the power of fool’s errand practitioners, such as by cracking into the email database of “I am wealthy and I trust unknown people too much” Anonymous.

The interesting theoretical implication suggested by your comment addresses the level at which we evaluate epistemic vigilance. On the one hand, we have the level of personal traits of gullibility. On the other hand, we have the level of structures of knowledge distribution. Can we pry them apart analytically? Empirically, it is problematic since it is very possible that forms of deception take into account both levels. For example, one would not attempt a “fool’s errand” with a highly suspicious apprentice bound to ask questions defusing the prank. Perhaps scammers try to eliminate segments of likely targets according to their web expertise (this is Herley’s argument).

One example comes to mind where both levels are addressed by scammers. On La Rambla in Barcelona, extremely well organised groups of con men play the three card trick. They target individuals with scarce local knowledge - tourists - by using a “touristy” location. However, their hope lies with the most gullible (greedy? drunk? careless?) tourists which can be parted with their money. The population of likely “marks” is selected by con artists (at the level of distributed social competence), while the actual mark selects himself by betting on the rigged game (at the level of individual characteristics).

Sorry for the long reply which mostly stated the obvious and restated in a less concise form your keen observations - but I think there is something theoretically interesting here: is epistemic vigilance only something “in the head”? Or do we need to rely upon an externalist perspective in which levels or mechanisms of epistemic vigilance can only be judged in the context of wider institutions of knowledge production and distribution? On my part, I think future explorations in the latter direction are promising.

P.S. Thinking about gains: fool’s errands are about hearty laughs and humiliating social initiation. Three card tricks aim for the quick buck, 50 euros made in a few minutes, a score of marks per day. 419 target the rare and precious victim, stripped of considerable sums after a prolonged investment in deceptive maneuvers. An association between kinds of gain and kinds of exploited weakness in epistemic vigilance?
Sunday, 10 March 2013 15:19
Your hypothesis, Radu, that scam targets personality traits more than they exploit the situations has a corroborating story just out in the news (brought to my attention by Denis Tatone): Paul Frampton, a great physicist, has fallen victim of scam, mistakenly thinking that he was corresponding with a young beautiful model and eventually ending up in jail for transporting 2kg of cocaine.


People concur in saying that Frampton is unusually gullible.

This story of an incredibly gullible scientist (or so it seems) might also be relevant to your remark that the optimality of epistemic vigilance can only be measured in view of its fit to the milieu. An optimal epistemic vigilance would enable people to believe most of the true things they are told and to disbelieve most of the false things they are told (especially the costly one). The inconvincible sceptic as well as the gullible has less than optimal epistemic vigilance. The optimal vigilance fall in between, but its precise position depends on whether the environment is full of false claims or not. It would be interesting to know whether there are different cognitive developments of epistemic vigilance depending on the type of environment in which a child grows up. This could account for some variability across individuals.

As for scientists, they are supposed to instantiate high epistemic vigilance. So how can Frampton be at the same time so gullible and a good physicist? I see two non-exclusive possibilities:

(1) Frampton exercises epistemic vigilance, but only in the domain of physics. This can happen because the scientific environment fosters argumentative abilities. By contrast, Frampton did not wish or need to convince others that he was having a relation with a beautiful model. He did not need to find good reasons for his beliefs and did not wish to adress counter-arguments. Hugo Mercier pointed to me that this difference in the argumentative context could explain the fact that Newton, with so great achievements in physics, did so badly in chemistry/alchemy. There was in alchemy no need to convince others; it was a secret enterprise.

(2) Frampton does not exercise much epistemic vigilance, but does well in physics nonetheless because the process of checking the plausibility of claims is distributed to others. Only very selected information arrives to his creative mind. This is thanks to the process through which scientific information comes to be distributed---the review process for instance. In science, epistemic vigilance is distributed across individuals and institutionalised. In that context, some gullibility might be an advantage. The schoolgirl, in any case, does better by believing the apparently crazy things that her teacher says (e.g. sound is the vibration of matter). At the research level also, it can pay to believe improbable hypotheses; it means pursuing a high risk, high reward research programme.

Monday, 18 March 2013 08:02
Thanks Radu and Christophe for a great post and a great exchange. Just a quick note to point out that the professor mentioned in the story is also described as rarely paying attention to the opinions of others. People had told him he was walking into a trap and he dismissed their advice. As in most other cases, the problem is not really sheer gullibility, but poor discrimination in who to trust, including a large part of refusing to be influenced by some communicated information.

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