One of the biggest news headlines this week has been the arrest of the top “Nigerian prince” email scammer and his accomplice. The Nigerian prince email scam is among the most well-known and oldest email scams, and despite its infamy and longevity, appears no less potent. So why, after some ten years, do people continue to fall for a request for personal information and money from an unknown and unverifiable person in prose replete with solecisms and typos?
For most people, any one of those red flags—an unknown sender, requests for funds or personally identifiable information, a fantastic emotional appeal, non-idiomatic English—results in either an automatic or manual rerouting to the spam folder. But for some people, or at least enough to make the scheme profitable, the red flags are not even identified as such. These people have fallen victim to social engineering.
According to Social Engineer, Inc, a research-oriented security organization, social engineering is “a blend of science, psychology, and art,” paradoxically both simple and complex, and more specifically, “any act that influences a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interest.” If the $60 million of lucre linked to it is any indicator, the Nigerian prince email scam has a very compelling blend of science, psychology, and art that is strikingly both simple and complex. The emails are often variations on this narrative theme: due to an injustice, a prince has lost his fortune and needs help recovering it. If some just and caring person will give him full bank account information now, he will reward the individual with 20% of the fortune.
The science or technology of email and wire transfer allows the scammer to quickly, easily, and relatively anonymously receive money. The psychological aspect of the operation, the promise of easy money and plea for help, appeals to the victim’s desire for money and willingness to help. The art here is one of deception.
Look at the Red Flags
The red flag is waving furiously, so don’t miss it. Don’t open emails from suspicious senders with questionable subjects. Don’t wire money to someone you don’t know.
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