A stodgy lawyer, a deposed prince, a helpless (yet filthy rich) waif with a needy relative — their emails land in our inboxes all too often asking for a modest cash advance in exchange for a massive payday down the line. And a disproportionate number of those too-good-to-be-true missives purport to come from Nigeria.
But why Nigeria of all places, and why don’t would-be scammers try to mix things up a bit more?
Cormac Herley, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research’s Machine Learning Department, says there’s no particular allure to Nigerian riches. But using the same tired and far-fetched line helps predatory emailers isolate the easiest targets, he argues in a research paper titled “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?”
“By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor,” Herley writes.
False positives in this case are defined as people who are targeted by email scammers but ultimately don’t take the bait.
Herley writes that “since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this this quality to self-identify.”
Email scams asking for financial advances have become so associated with the West African country that they are colloquially known by most as simply “Nigerian email scams” or “419 scams” — the 419 referring to the section for fraud in Nigeria’s criminal code.