It's hard to imagine today that anyone who gets an email from a person claiming to be a wealthy Nigerian prince wouldn't immediately know it was scam. Yet this technique is still being used by hundreds of fraudsters.
Why? It's actually a brilliant strategy designed to save time and maximize profit by immediately identifying only the most gullible marks, according to an analysis by Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research.
In other words if you're a fraudster, you want your email to be totally ridiculous:
Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify. An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre... Those who remain are the scammers ideal targets. They represent a tiny subset of the overall population.
The goal of the email is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the non-viable ones, who greatly outnumber them. Failure to repel all but a tiny fraction of non-viable users will make the scheme unprofitable.
Back in 2009, we interviewed Nuhu Ribadu, former head of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, about these email scams. He told us they were remarkably successful.
"It is amazing if you know how much money those guys got," said Ribadu. "Within a short period of time, we were able to recover $750 million dollars."
Ribadu told us the people who ran these scams were living large on that money:
...they were literally like celebrities. They were the big guys in society, sponsoring people for public office. They were the ones with convoys and big cars. They would occupy front seats at ceremonial things and social events.
Ribadu convicted several of these fraudsters. As for the money they stole, he says his office traced victims across the world to return whatever they could.
(H/T: Marginal Revolution)