For some reason, more than one Harvard professor has made the news for being the easy mark of grifters. Take the law professor who, over the course of four years, found himself drawn into a web of fraud and false accusations, until he was finally out of a job, homeless, and out $300,000 in legal fees to defend himself.

In another case, a Harvard scientist working in cancer research heartlessly conned his own trusting friends and colleagues, some of whom lost their homes and savings, out of $600,000. He promptly, but naively, sent it all to Nigerian scammers, who had promised him a cool $50 million in return. After being arrested, he still could not admit to having been fooled himself after fooling so many of the people around him.

It just goes to show that even the smartest person can still be as gullible or as greedy as the rest of us, if the conditions are right.

Researchers often have pondered the psychology of how and why certain people fall for scams, especially ones that appear to be so obvious to others. Scammers target certain human traits, including vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited, such as naiveté, overconfidence in one’s intelligence or abilities, an overly optimistic expectation of immediate success in life, or a desire to feel good about helping others. As communication on the internet has gotten more sophisticated, so have the scams. Many still fall for it, as con artists continue to target businesses as well as individuals.

Before you even get to the level of a personal interaction with a mysterious Nigerian prince, however, this short study by linguist Deborah Schaffer can give you the 4-1-9 on how to recognize the linguistic patterns of a scam email when it first enters your inbox and greets you in flattering, if broken, flowery language.

Nigerian 419 cons (the number refers to the fraud section of the Nigerian Criminal Code) are practically the oldest scams on the internet. They can actually be traced back to the 1920s, in the form of a confidence trick most gothically known as the Spanish Prisoner. The victims are asked to pay out more and more money to release the wealthy relative of your respectable foreign correspondents (who naturally doesn’t exist), cruelly imprisoned in Spain, in return for a large reward (that never comes).

In the updated 419 Nigerian scam, the potential mark is asked to pay a small advance fee, or asked to send their bank information or personal details to help move funds that have been locked up, perhaps in a foreign country, or somewhere plausibly difficult. In return, they’re promised a much larger fund in return. As the story goes, perhaps it comes from the coffers of a prince in exile, a government official on the take, or a dying philanthropist anxious to bequeath his or her wealth upon a deserving email recipient.

While Schaffer found half of her collection of 419 emails originated from Nigeria, the rest were from elsewhere, often other African and Middle Eastern countries. What’s really interesting is how language is used in these con jobs. The stories are colorful variations of each other, but the language used to tell them are key to capturing a potential mark’s (greedy) imagination, relieving their fears, and building a bond and relationship between an ongoing victim and grifter.

It’s well-known that most of the emails are composed by nonnative speakers of English, as is clear from the many grammatical and punctuation mistakes, broken syntax, missing words, and malapropisms (“the will to personify the façade to its practical conclusion” for “pursue the charade”). With so many mistakes, how can this language really fool anyone? Often, victims know the message comes from a nonnative speaker, or they may be nonnative English speakers themselves and may not always recognize grammatical errors. These are the ludicrous linguistic warning signs that helpfully remove most people who are savvy enough to escape the trap and leave the much smaller percentage who stay to be intrigued, starry-eyed, by an implausible story.

Despite this lack of English fluency, the scammers seem to have read and absorbed the most swashbuckling tales of linguistic derring do. 419 scam emails are full of unusually florid language, meant to persuade and cajole the reader into biting the bullet and complying, such as in opening greetings (“Compliments of the season, and I pray that this mail meet you in go”) and apologies (“Pardon the abruptness of this letter; it is due to its exigency”). Scammers make liberal use of flattery (“You have been recommended by an associate who assured me in confidence of your ability and reliability in prosecuting a business transaction of high net value requiring maximum confidentiality.”), religious appeals invoking God in the hopes of finding common ground, even secrecy and intrigue (“First, I must solicit your strictest confidence in this transaction; this is by virtue of its nature as being utterly confidential and top secret.”).

Schaffer also shows how 419 scammers use strategies such as pressuring readers to act now before it’s too late (“Get Back To Me Urgently!”) and assuring them that the proposed schemes are quite safe (“This transaction is 100% risk free”) and of immense worth and value. The scammers make extraordinary efforts to use technical, military, financial or otherwise professional language in a clumsy caricature of what formal, educated English sounds like (“government officials . . . awarded themselves contracts that were grossly over-invoiced in various ministries and parastatals”) to keep up the pretence of being a barrister, a brigadier-general, or a bank official.

This is all wrapped up in unrealistic, yet intriguing narratives that many ordinary people are not familiar with, of the lives of dead millionaires’ relatives, down on their luck, philanthropists and princes who want to do good for others, distressed business executives and oil tycoons, all who’ve lost their way and need your help. By telling these tall tales, and playing on sympathy, grifters try to entice their victims into a bond that keeps them deeply invested in the scheme and the outcome for as long as possible. The longer they feel invested and loyal, the more they’ll continue to deny it’s a scam. Sometimes they never do.

The language scammers use to impress and flatter is so obvious and amateurish that it can seem astonishing that anyone could ever be taken in. Yet many ordinary people do fall into the trap every year. The language, however puzzling, is designed to be persuasive as part of story victims are often wishing and wanting to be real. It’s a simple scam, but appears to be effective when it reaches credulous types who are willing to ignore the warning signs in search of a treasure hunting adventure that can make a life extraordinary for a while, before it all ends in grief.

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ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 69, No. 2 (April 2012), pp. 157-179
Institute of General Semantics