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There is a well known Microsoft research paper that claims that scammers state they are from Nigeria as a means of filtering out people who are too savvy to be useful to them. The theory goes that the people who remain who haven't spotted the mistakes are gullible enough that they'll continue to engage in the scam, so they can focus their efforts.

This has been widely reported (Telegraph) (as a money stack exchange answer) (security stack exchange answer) (Business Insider) as the complete explanation. However the paper is only a theoretical analysis of the problem, it doesn't have any empirical evidence.

Is there any evidence that demonstrates that the reason scam emails and messages are often poorly written/formatted is a deliberate strategy rather than the obvious answer that the writer is simply incompetent?

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    "state they are from Nigeria ... the mistakes". Your first paragraph looks like it's missing something you had meant to say about mistakes in the emails. I skimmed and text searched the linked paper but found nothing about your question title in it.
    – Dan Getz
    Jan 17 at 12:01
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    Using cheap mass messaging, whether by email or snail mail or automated phone calls, is a way to catch people who may not have a lot of money but are easily parted from that money. That "a fool and his money are soon parted" goes way back in time; it's an admonishment in the Bible, for example. Jan 17 at 12:34
  • What I am taught on a yearly basis is that phishing schemes are growing ever more sophisticated. The articles to which the question links are old. Almost everyone has learned not to fall prey to emails purportedly from princes of Nigeria or those with bad spelling / poor grammar. It's the well written emails with perfectly replicated icons and that appear to be from ones boss, from IT, or from ones financial advisor (but aren't) that need to be scrutinized carefully. Jan 17 at 12:45
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    "Scammers" are not an organized, monolithic group, so how can this be answered? Not all scammers have bad English. Other scammers are clearly using misspellings for another reason (Bayesian poisoning). Others still only have the English skills of beginner English Learners, like many people in such areas with limited English instruction. And most scammers aren't going to tell you anything about why they do what they do. Are you simply asking if there's any evidence that even one scammer is dumbing down their language to go after the most gullible?
    – Laurel
    Jan 17 at 14:46
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    I don't think it's necessary for a group to be centrally directed for there to be a common established theme in their strategy. There are a small number of common scams, it's not like each scammer is an artisan, so it follows that there would be a theme in other tactics as well. But yes, the question is if there is any evidence at all. An established pattern would be good, but even one "anonymous interview with a scammer" would be something to back up the claim.
    – Tom
    Jan 17 at 15:00

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The Microsoft paper is theoretical

I suspect that this is the epicenter of the claim. I did not find any evidence of Nigerians only pretending to have bad English, nor the central idea of the paper.

The paper is titled "Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?" and says "this approach suggests an answer to the question in the title." It is not giving a definitive answer but a hypothesis. No Nigerians were consulted, "language" is only mentioned in passing, and it makes assumptions that scamming is a completely rational enterprise built on values like "[f]ailure to repel all but a tiny fraction of non-viable users will make the scheme unprofitable". A highlight from the paper:

Why so little imagination? Why don’t Nigerian scammers claim to be from Turkey, or Portugal or Switzerland or New Jersey? Stupidity is an unsatisfactory answer: the scam requires skill in manipulation, considerable inventiveness and mastery of a language that is non-native for a majority of Nigerians. It would seem odd that after lying about his gender, stolen millions, corrupt officials, wicked in laws, near-death escapes and secret safety deposit boxes that it would fail to occur to the scammer to lie also about his location.

(Of course, some Nigerian scammers do lie about their location.)

Smith's visits to Nigerian cybercafes

Daniel Smith's 2007 book A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria details his observations observing and interviewing some low level Nigerian scammers and the people around them. He gives this explanation for why scam emails follow themes like the Nigerian Prince type email:

The fact that millions of 419 e-mails in in-boxes around the world fall into a few basic genres is a product of how the scam enterprises are organized. The people sending the e-mails usually begin with copies of other e-mails that have been used in the past. Their themes are directly related to the structure of real fraud and corruption in Nigeria, to the ways in which the biggest forms of Nigerian corruption occur at the nexus between the state and the global economy, and to the unfolding of current events. Those working directly within the loose organizational hierarchy send most of their e-mails based on the previously successful prototypes. Those working freelance also begin with the prototypes, but are more likely to try stories that could generate a direct transfer of money, since the freelancers obviously don't have the resources to concoct the elaborate scenarios that could produce the biggest payoffs.

The Nigerian Prince scam is actually very old, predating even the internet. Wikipedia cites a NYT article from 1992 mentioning such a successful scam. Smith gives an example of an elaborate heist from 1989 (also successful). The name "Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation" comes up in both stories, though it is no more the real perpetrator than a "Nigerian prince".

Why would someone fall for an obvious scam in the internet age? There may not be an answer that would satisfy the type of person who wouldn't fall for it. More recent data from the Better Business Bureau shows that even five years ago (2018), "Nigerian/Foreign Money Exchange" scams were still going strong, costing Americans at least $700k. (However, it is not clear from that how many of the scams were based on "outlandish" premises or had terrible grammar.)

Some scammers work alone, but others are part of a larger organization. According to Smith, those working closely with an organization are expected to forward all the responses up the chain (but there is not always honor among thieves). Freelancers, on the other hand, try to get the money for themselves first, but if they can't, they pass the information on to organizations in exchange for a small fee:

None of my informants had ever actually received any money directly from a dupe, but they had all received some money from people higher up the hierarchy to whom they passed recipient responses. The two young men who worked directly in the loose organization received fairly regular money. None said they could really support themselves from the effort, though they all repeated stories they had heard about people who had received money directly from a scam victim. The dream of a big payoff seemed to be as much of a motive as the small income they actually earned.

Scamming can be like a lottery: For some the scheme is unprofitable, therefore it's not rational.

Many scammers are not native English speakers and do not have proofreaders

I found high level data for Nigeria on EF and Statista, but the paper The Language of Scam Spams: Linguistic Features of "Nigerian Fraud" E-mails gets to the heart of the issue best. The emails analyzed were from 2002-2003 and found that the vast majority had mistakes that were typical of English learners and "only 20% demonstrated real fluency". Ironically, the majority of emails also tried to employ "learned or specialized vocabulary", such as fancy Latin words for effect. The paper cites something interesting from another paper that I wasn't able to access:

If they are aware of their limitations in English—and Blommaert and Omoniyi suggest otherwise, claiming that at least some of these writers "appear to assume that their English is 'good' enough to pass as native speakers [sic]" (2006, p. 602; italics original)—I suspect they count on the content of their mailings to prove irresistible to recipients, with greed winning out over skepticism.

The paper also discusses how $250 was enough to pay for almost an entire year's bills in some areas, while the cost to get started sending spam was trivial due to free email accounts and cheap cybercafes, with the conclusion being that "probably invest minimal time in writing and sending the mailings and have very little to lose and potentially a great deal to gain by casting their nets as widely as possible."

Sometime misspellings have a purpose

In other types of scam emails, misspellings have a clearly defined purpose.

Many email filters will block messages containing spammy keywords, thence l33t spellings and unicode confusables to bypass them. (I am not sure if any "Nigerian" emails try to avoid the filters like that.)

Other attacks may use typosquatting (where scammers may purchase "example.co" to trick users who want to access the established site "example.com"). This is always deliberate, and if there are any other misspellings in other parts of the campaign, it's purely a coincidence. For phishing (and especially spear phishing), the English may actually be quite good.

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  • Not just email filters, but social media company filters. Slight misspellings or what looks like a space added as a typo are intended to defeat simple pattern-match based filters. Jan 18 at 21:09
  • Many scammers are not native English speakers and do not have proofreaders => we've had GPT-3 for 1.5 years now that can do amazing spelling corrections, I'm surprised it's still not used widely for scams Jan 19 at 17:38
  • @JonathanReez AI like that has been both obscure and had a barrier to entry until recently. Now it's less obscure and has a smaller barrier to entry. Some spammers use it. However, some people still fail to use even the most basic spell check. (And if that surprises you, check out Stack Overflow, where you can see a lot of easily detected mistakes like that.)
    – Laurel
    Jan 19 at 19:02
  • Another plausible explanation is that, on average, some Nigerian with good enough English language skills to pass as native would be able to make more money in some legitimate job (including possibly emigrating).
    – Fizz
    Jan 26 at 5:18

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