You’re familiar with the Nigerian scam, aren’t you? You get an email – in days gone by it was a letter – which explains that the sender has a large sum of money stuck in a bank in Nigeria, or Sierra Leone, or Iraq or indeed anywhere, and if you pay to transfer it abroad you’ll be in line for a share of it. I don’t really need to say it, do I, but if you do send money you won’t see a Nigerian naira of it again and you certainly won’t receive a reward.
It’s called the Nigerian scam because the first wave of these scams originated in Nigeria. It’s also called the 419 scam, after the section of the Nigerian criminal code which covers fraud, or the advance fee scam. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find out more about it here, but most people know about it or have received an email like this themselves.
So if most people know about the Nigerian scam, why do scammers keep on using it? Why don’t they at least update their story to make it sound less obvious and more plausible? The answer is they want it to be obvious and they don’t need to make it more plausible, because the story works – as long as you’re one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t heard of it.
If you are one of those people, you’re the target – the mark in classic conman slang. You’re the person the scammers are trying to reach and if you reply to the email you’ve passed first post. That means you’re worth investing time in and the scammers can start the process of defrauding you. If you instantly know it’s a scam then you’re never going to be taken in, no matter how hard the scammers work. So why am I talking about this? Because scammers also have other strategies for identifying people who are more likely to fall for a scam – which is where spelling comes in.
I’ve written before about how to spot a scam on Facebook and other platforms. Poor grammar and spelling are key giveaways and it’s true that Nigerian scam emails often look as though they’ve been put through Google Translate backwards, resulting in what one can only describe as garble. Of course, some scammers are just lazy. The scam has worked before, so they simply lift it and repost, spelling mistakes, repeat images and all, but in fact the spelling mistakes are there for a reason. The scammers’ logic is that if you’re ‘stupid enough’ not to notice the spelling errors, you’re ‘stupid enough’ to fall for the scam. For the scammers, you’ve passed first post again.
The reverse spelling test is designed to filter out the people who won’t respond to the scam and identify those ‘stupid’ people who are more likely to send money to claim a prize or disclose their personal and financial details, which can then be sold on. It’s pretty insulting and it’s pretty cynical.
So are the scammers right? Do only stupid people fall for scams? Of course not. Scams come in all shapes and sizes. The scammers understand what makes us tick and they entice us with something we want, like a Starbucks gift card or the chance to win a holiday of a lifetime.
There’s no shame in being taken in, but scammers do target people who are vulnerable, whether it’s because of their age – victims can be old or young – or because they’re socially isolated, in debt and desperate, or just impulsive risk-takers. We all know people like this, so do them a kindness, get out the dictionary and make sure they don’t become soft targets for the scammers.
If you come across a scam you can report it to Action Fraud via it’s online fraud reporting tool and if you’ve been the victim of a scam we’d like to hear from you. Get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist, an IPM Board Director, and a SCAMbassador for National Trading Standards Scams Team.