I woke recently to find a panicked email from an old colleague at the top of my inbox. He had, it explained, recently been mugged while staying in Manila, and urgently needed to borrow some money. My immediate thought was to reply, but then a dose of realism kicked in. I searched online for a selected phrase from the email and, sure enough, found multiple versions of the text reproduced among known scams. I left a message on his phone instead, saying his email account had been hacked – and that he should probably let his contacts know he hadn’t been mugged.
The email in question is known as the “grandparent scam”, because its best chance of success is among older people unfamiliar with the internet – and potentially willing to dispatch money to grandchildren in peril. As a piece of creative writing, it begins well – “I’m writing this with tears in my eyes...” – but then tails off into something distant enough from plain English to raise suspicions (“sorry if we are inconveniencing you, but we have only few people to run to now... this will enable us sort our bills and get our sorry self back home”).
If it had been written more convincingly, I might have spent the morning trying to work out if my colleague really was in trouble. Yet, from a spammer’s perspective, fooling me with a better initial email would have made little sense. I’m never going to send money to an alleged acquaintance without verifying their identity – and it would waste a good deal of a scammer’s time trying to construct something that persuades me that they were someone I knew personally.
In fact, it makes more sense for a scammer to send out messages that most people will identify as spam, leaving the sender free to devote their efforts to those who have effectively declared themselves to be naive or gullible. As Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley argues in his investigation 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 favour.”
Spamming is a sophisticated global business – and part of this sophistication means wasting as little time as possible on the majority of internet users. As a 2012 paper on the economics of spam by research scientists Justin Rao and David Reiley points out, the global spam “industry” has revenues of just $200 million per year – not insignificant, but a startlingly poor return on 100 billion daily emails. Margins are low, and time-wasting is potentially costly. Even a few thousand sufficiently wised-up people replying to a classic “Nigerian Prince” email might, from the senders’ point of view, waste enough of their time to wipe out all hopes of profit from the scheme.
In this respect, spam is depressingly similar to some other online endeavours, ranging from misleading viral marketing to virtual video-game goods aimed at minors. Each uses the almost cost-free capacities of digital technology to target the most suggestible few – and to pass on unseen costs in wasted time, infrastructure and energy to everybody else.
Road to spam-a-lot
It’s not just email any more, either. Modern spam covers everything from tweets and forum posts to fake blogs, articles, phone calls and text messages. Little wonder that a recent British survey rated spam email and pressure selling as modern life’s top irritants (closely followed by call centres). In each case, what’s going on is a dispiriting mirror image of the ways in which technology can magnify the power of the individual. Mass accessibility is made an accessory to mass inconvenience, with a costly sting in the tail for those easily bewildered.