Adventures in Spam: Volume II

Yesterday, an email yesterday with a lead-in very similar to the following one made it past my spam filter. (I’ve changed all of the details to protect the innocent but it’s true to the style and effect.):

 From: Mr. John Richard <> Subject: NIGERIA PARTNER  Dear Sir,  This email may come as a suprise to you but I am very glad to make your acquaintance. 

To my surprise (and probably to yours as well) this email was not a 419 scam. It turns out, John is from Nigeria and he really wanted to be a partner on a Free Software project I’m working on! I was glad I read the whole message before hitting delete!

I think this is interesting case for two reasons:

First, I can’t help but think that had I not had been using a machine spam filter, I would have deleted this in a heartbeat. This is a rare example of a mail that could be correctly identified by many (most?) computer spam filters using techniques like Bayesian analysis on the complete message but incorrectly by human filters who make a decision based on the headers and the first paragraph.

Second, it made me think about the impact that these 419 scams must be having on legitimate Nigerian mail. I’ve heard it said that most 419’s were, at least historically, are actually run by Nigerians although I don’t know if this is still the case. In any case, it seems that many people have come to associate Nigeria and Nigerian email writing styles as indicative of scams.

It seems possible that Nigerian Internet cafes are full of emailers with names like Mr. John Richard who use yahoo email addresses and who come from a culture where it is common to write subjects in ALLCAPS. When they write to people they don’t know, they — quite sensibly — start mails apologizing for the fact that they may have surprised their readers with an unannounced missive. Spammers and scammers put all these more upstanding folks at a real disadvantage when it comes to getting their message out.

17 Replies to “Adventures in Spam: Volume II”

  1. Nice one! Your posts make my day! I started reading you through planet ubuntu, and I have a proposal of sorts. I tried to trackback or pingback this post to let you know of the fact that I wrote something related to this that you may want to read, but I could not find a trackback URL here, and the automatic pingbacking doesn’t seem to be working, hence this comment.

    Have a great day!

  2. Puhlease! Any (any!) e-mail that starts with “Dear Sir, This email may come as a suprise to you but I am very glad to make
    your acquaintance” is most likely some scam. Has got nothing to do with Nigeria. Real proposals will look like they have been written by real people.

    For years now I have been consciously aware that if you use certain phrases, my messages will likely be labeled spam by an overzealous heuristic scanner, so I take care to use the right words and phrases.

  3. Have you replied to Mr. Richard? Would it be polite to ask him about some of these possible customs?

    If the habits of writing subjects in caps and apologizing for unsolicited mails are indeed common to the culture, their prominence in Nigerian scams is not planned but only an earmark that the mail was actually written by a Nigerian. I expect American scam letters bear American marks to other cultures.

  4. Branko and Nick: A colleague who works with many Nigerians says that “Excessive formality, a likely legacy of British rule, plus use of all caps for emphasis are pretty common among the Nigerians I communicate with.  Also, Internet cafes and webmail addresses are by far the norm in Nigeria.”

  5. just a note to say that many email filters claim greater accuracy than a human being (though I admit I’m not sure of the methodology behind such claims) so it should not be that unusual for a spam filter to be ‘smarter’ than you at picking out what is and is not spam in your inbox.

  6. Seth, I presume the addressed, Benjamin Mako Hill, is not from Nigeria, and that Nigerians are not especially handicaped when it comes to paying attention to netiquette.

  7. Branko,

    Netiquette is not as universal as you seem to imply. Within the highly technical communities that I participate in, sending HTML mail is a serious faux-paux as is unwrapped lines or a longer than six-line signature. Setting a Reply-To to the list on a mailing list is considered very bad form. In other online communities, any of these would be acceptable — even the norm.

    The way that Koreans speak to each other online is markedly different than, say, Americans and this translates into English conversations. I don’t think John was violating netiquette. I think he was going out of his way to be polite in the way that his culture has taught him. The only real problem is that the rest of the world has come to see this type of Nigerian politeness as indicative of spamming.

  8. This is a very funny situation , I must have had a least a dozen of spam mails from nigerians , although now its not just nigerians but a whole bunch of african nations which are sending fake partnership or donation requests.

    I even go one mail saying that i got some kind of heritage ! But i guess its kind of difficult to have your spam filter detect all potential spams , there are bound to have a couple which eventually do get inside your mail box.

      Javed Mandary

  9. Benjamin,

    This is a very common scam, I have seen many of them myself. Somewhere down the line he’s going to ask you for money. Don’t get sucked in, keep away from this guy.

  10. Run. Run far, fast and away from this guy. It’s a scam. He hasn’t asked for money yet, but he will. Perhaps a few thousand dollars to cover some transfer/transaction fees. Then a few thousand more to cover legal fees, bribes for custom officials, etc.

    Just delete the e-mail.

  11. I’m a scambaiter.  I answer these scam e-mails and waste the scammer’s time and money, get them to go to Western Union outlets to collect non-existent money transfers, get them to travel to another country or city to meet me, and even try to get them arrested.  THIS IS A SCAM!  You can talk all you want about the netiquette of Nigerians, but this is just a common e-mail advanced fee scam.  Eventually he will ask you for money, maybe to set up a trading account at a bank, to pay lawyer’s fees or for something else, but he will ask you to send him money.  Just stop communicating with him.

  12. Just think of how he got your address.  Is it possible that he found it in the way he claimed, I don’t think so.  One point against.

    Was the mail sent to you, or is your address in the BCC field.  If you can’t see evidence that this isn’t a mass mail, one point against.

    I don’t mean to knock you, but why you?  If he can’t give you specific info that is believable, one point against.

    Sooner or later he will ask you for money of some sort, considering details given it might be for ‘equipment’ or he miht ask you to send expensive stuff out to him.

    A sure fire test to see if this is genuine, set up a mail account with false details, you might chose a silly name.  If he doesn’t twig, then you have a scam because he sent this out to so many people he can’t track who the hell is replying and he really doesn’t care.  If he does, play it by ear and wait for him to ask for money.  There is no doubt that Christmas and your birthday come only once a year each, and strangers never give you worthwhile gifts.

  13. Are you a stupid?  Of course this is a 419 scam.  I’ve got the Brooklyn Bridge to sell if you are interested.

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