Ode to the Nigerian Scammer

Most of us would never fall for a Nigerian email scam. The obvious “scammer grammar” and outlandish requests would tip us off, as would the supposed Nigerian origin of the message, since we’re probably familiar with the typical claims about Nigerian royalty. So you might wonder why these scammers persist in such an obvious ruse, rather than tweaking their stories to make them more believable.

According to a recent study by Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley, the Nigerian scam is designed to tip off all but the most oblivious recipients. The intended targets are people so unaware of common online scams that they must have been living in a cave without Internet access until, like, yesterday.

In Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria? Herley explains, “Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. 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.”

In other words, scammers are disqualifying the majority of potential victims in order to pinpoint the most gullible as quickly as possible. Anyone naïve enough to respond to such ridiculousness is far more likely to willingly empty their bank account.

Unfortunately for consumers, the #1 method of prevention is education—knowing when something looks too good to be true, not accepting friend connections from people you don’t know, not publishing your personally identifiable information (Teens: please stop posting photos of your freshly-printed driver’s permits and licenses on Facebook), and of course, changing passwords often and not sharing them with others. Installing anti-phishing technology on one’s computer or other device is also known to prevent many of the messages from reaching you in the first place.

On the business-side, banks, retailers, dating sites and social networks help prevent scams by identifying known scammers and spammers the moment they touch their website. By using iovation’s device identification service, ReputationManager 360, which shares the reputations of more than 975 million devices from all countries in the world, they not only know a device’s rap sheet (which could include online scam solicitations, spam, identity theft, credit card fraud and more), they know about devices related to it, and are alerted to other forms of suspicious behavior in real-time as well.

Robert Siciliano, personal security and identity theft expert contributor to iovation, discusses identity theft  in front of the National Speakers Association. (Disclosures)