The Life Changing Linguistics of… Nigerian Scam EmailsSeptember 11, 2019
For some reason, more than one Harvard professor has made the news for being the easy mark of grifters. Take the law professor who, over the course of four years, found himself drawn into a web of fraud and false accusations, until he was finally out of a job, homeless, and out $300,000 in legal fees to defend himself.
In another case, a Harvard scientist working in cancer research heartlessly conned his own trusting friends and colleagues, some of whom lost their homes and savings, out of $600,000. He promptly, but naively, sent it all to Nigerian scammers, who had promised him a cool $50 million in return. After being arrested, he still could not admit to having been fooled himself after fooling so many of the people around him.
It just goes to show that even the smartest person can still be as gullible or as greedy as the rest of us, if the conditions are right.
Researchers often have pondered the psychology of how and why certain people fall for scams, especially ones that appear to be so obvious to others. Scammers target certain human traits, including vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited, such as naiveté, overconfidence in one’s intelligence or abilities, an overly optimistic expectation of immediate success in life, or a desire to feel good about helping others. As communication on the internet has gotten more sophisticated, so have the scams. Many still fall for it, as con artists continue to target businesses as well as individuals.
Before you even get to the level of a personal interaction with a mysterious Nigerian prince, however, this short study by linguist Deborah Schaffer can give you the 4-1-9 on how to recognize the linguistic patterns of a scam email when it first enters your inbox and greets you in flattering, if broken, flowery language.
Nigerian 419 cons (the number refers to the fraud section of the Nigerian Criminal Code) are practically the oldest scams on the internet. They can actually be traced back to the 1920s, in the form of a confidence trick most gothically known as the Spanish Prisoner. The victims are asked to pay out more and more money to release the wealthy relative of your respectable foreign correspondents (who naturally doesn’t exist), cruelly imprisoned in Spain, in return for a large reward (that never comes).
In the updated 419 Nigerian scam, the potential mark is asked to pay a small advance fee, or asked to send their bank information or personal details to help move funds that have been locked up, perhaps in a foreign country, or somewhere plausibly difficult. In return, they’re promised a much larger fund in return. As the story goes, perhaps it comes from the coffers of a prince in exile, a government official on the take, or a dying philanthropist anxious to bequeath his or her wealth upon a deserving email…