Emails scams are a big part of Zoo City. My protagonist, Zinzi December specializes in writing very credible scam emails – but a study by Cormac Herley, a computer scientist at Microsoft Research indicates that it’s precisely the absurdity of the typo-heavy scams that helps scammers identity people gullible enough to fall for it.

Here’s an example of a mail I received personally, and saved as part of my research for Zoo City. (I also used it in my short story, Easy Touch)

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.18.02 AMAnd here’s a snip from the article on why this actually works (which you can read in full at the Wall Street Journal: How To Trick The Guilty And Gullible Into Revealing Themselves) 


“Internet fraud is hardly the only realm haunted by false positives. Roughly 95% of the burglar alarms that U.S. police respond to are false alarms, at a yearly cost of some $2 billion. One recent medical study found an astonishingly high rate of false positives—60% for men, 49% for women—among patients who were regularly screened for various cancers.

So how can a Nigerian scammer minimize his false positives?

Dr. Herley, while modeling this question, identified the most valuable characteristic in a potential victim: gullibility. Who else but a supremely gullible person would send thousands of dollars to a faraway stranger based on a kooky letter?

But how can a Nigerian scammer tell who is gullible and who isn’t? He can’t. Gullibility is, in this case, an unobservable trait. But the scammer could invite the gullible people to reveal themselves.

How? By sending out such a ridiculous letter—including prominent mentions of Nigeria—that only a gullible person would take it seriously. Anyone with an ounce of sense or experience would immediately trash the email. “The scammer wants to find the guy who hasn’t heard of it,” Dr. Herley says. “Anybody who doesn’t fall off their chair laughing is exactly who he wants to talk to.” Here’s how Dr. Herley put it in a research paper: “The goal of the e-mail is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the nonviable ones, who greatly outnumber them.”

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