Why Are Spam Emails So Bad – And Badly Written?

So I got an email from Microsof awhile back (or was it Mycrosoft?) and I wondered, like most of the non-spamming population, why don’t they put more effort into their emails? After all, only an idiot would not know the spelling of Microsoft, right?


Although some may feel that errors humanize the writer, so we don’t believe it’s a machine, or that these are actually clever psychological traps, the best answer I’ve seen is from Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of “Freakonomics” fame. As they explain in their latest book, “Think Like A Freak,” that’s deliberate, because of the cost of false positives.

To explain, imagine a scammer sends out 1,000,000 emails, automatically. Of that 10% (100,000) respond, requiring someone to read 100,000 emails to decide if they are suitable. Sending emails is cheap and easy, but vetting chumps (called maga) can cost in labor – and even in Nigerian, saving labor costs makes sense. Therefore, you want an email to get only the ones who will eventually part with their money, but no one else. The result? Write an email that gets only 1% or even 0.1% response, but that only the ‘right’ people will act on, while the rest of us are amazed at the silliness.

Knowing this, some people have tried to increase the cost of doing ‘business’ by replying to emails, stringing the people along. Not only is this a seriously bad thing to do (why goad a criminal?), it is ultimately futile: When dealing in millions of emails, just how much damage can a few harassers make on the spammer’s bottom line?

The most interesting suggestion I’ve seen is to get the big guys in on it – for example, when a spam filter in Gmail catches one, have it make a realistic-sounding reply. Now you’ve got serious blowback, and the potential to make it less cost effective to continue – possibly enough to stop it. At least on Gmail accounts – but if it works, other companies would follow suit to stay competitive.

In any case, the question is (I believe) now answered – silly emails exist to catch a ‘special’ person, and no one else. Because all in all, the person who parts with their money for a scam in this day and age is a special person, and so we can see that these emails are meant for them.

So next time you are around the water cooler, and one of your group starts up with, “Yes, but, what if they really are…”, sit him/her down and explain reality – quick. Otherwise, a Nigerian might well have found another maga…

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FREAKONOMICS by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner 2006 hardcover
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