THE BLOG
09/29/2015 11:10 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Don't Expect to Be Made Wealthy by Someone Who Doesn't Know Your Name

Some time ago, I discovered that I was not getting all the emails sent to me by readers, which induced me to examine my spam file. Dismayed to find that it contained many letters from friends and readers that I should have received, I disabled the spam filter, and reconciled myself to the daily task of weeding out all the junk mail by sight.

In doing this, I quickly discovered that the spam filter had shielded me from a torrent of Internet "scammails" originating abroad. During the previous two weeks, I received 62 of them, which astounded me. I set up a scam folder which grows day by day. The industry has grown to sizeable proportions, which makes it worthy of an article.

The Pitch: What all scam mails have in common is a story about a large sum of money available to me, the amounts typically running into the millions of dollars. Someone recently deceased may have left it for me in their will, or it may be in a bank account of someone who has died without heirs, who I must impersonate in order to collect. It may be in a strong box hidden in a foreign country by an ex-dictator, or one of his henchmen, which will be sent to me if I agree to receive it. Another possibility is that the money is due me under a contract I had with the United Nations or some other official agency, which somehow I forgot about. Or I won a sweepstakes that I can't remember having entered. I have also been offered the personal fortunes of multiple women about to die who need a trusted person to manage their money for the public good.

The Central Contradiction: The stories are based on a contradiction that should be obvious to anyone whose critical faculties have not disengaged: in almost every case, the money to be paid requires that the recipient be identified, yet the letter does not address the recipient by name. It is addressed to "Dear Friend", or "Hello", or "Sir/Madam", or "Hello Beloved," or "Attention Unpaid Beneficiary." Real names don't work because scammail is disseminated through mass Internet mailings, the low cost of which makes the business viable.

Who Is the Target? The scamsters don't expect many replies, but they don't need many to thrive. An analogy that comes to mind is a performance by a hypnotist I attended many years ago. The hypnotist came out on the stage and announced "You are getting very sleepy...", whereupon two people in the audience of about 300 promptly fell fast asleep. These two people were highly vulnerable to suggestion. In a similar vein, the scamsters are looking for the few who are highly responsive to the allures of their pitch.

The Money Allure: The prospect of obtaining a large sum of money causes the critical faculties of some people to shut down. The scamsters differ widely among themselves on what the optimal figure is to cause a shutdown without straining credibility, but in my sample they are all larger than $1 million, range up to $80 million, and average about $5 million.

Source Allure: The scamsters identify themselves in ways designed to impress recipients but discourage inquiries. The most frequently employed identity in my sample is an official of a government agency, a central bank, or a large private bank located in Nigeria, Ghana, Thailand, Korea, Spain, Burkina-Faso, Senegal, or Hong Kong.

Very few purport to be from the U.S., but I did receive one purportedly from Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, telling me that I had won their sweepstakes. This would have been easy to check if I felt it was necessary.

Soldiers figure prominently, ranging from Sergeants to Generals. And there are many widows, some with distinguished deceased husbands, and most are on their death beds. Scamsters seem to believe that widows, especially dying widows, are highly credible.

A few of the more interesting scams are disguised as counter-frauds, where the writer laments the epidemic of fraud, is highly critical of the rascals perpetrating them, who are trashing the reputation of their country. They then proceed to assure the recipient that there just might be some money in an account that bears their name, and they can learn the truth about it only from them.

The Payoff:The recipient who responds is told about a very minor issue that must be settled before the money can be delivered - removing it will require a small payment, maybe $125 - not much considering the millions that will soon be coming. If this is paid, another problem is discovered, and this one might cost a little more, but now the victim has an investment to protect. The game continues as long as the victim is willing to play.


How Not to Be Scammed: The best protection against Internet-based scams from abroad is, before sending any money, check it out with someone who is not emotionally involved and (even better) knows more than you do. People who are scammed almost always act alone without bringing anyone else into the process. If you can't find anyone else, try me.

Visit my website The Mortgage Professor for more information on scams and mortgage scams in particular