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Are Nigerian scammers' crazy e-mails actually very clever?

An analysis from Microsoft Research suggests that Nigerian scammers need to sound as ridiculous as possible, so that only the most gullible will reply to them.

It really isn't easy to write one of these things. I tried my best.
Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

There are plenty of scammers in the tech world.

They choose to couch themselves in deep wisdoms, sincere declarations of honesty, and core-driven respect for privacy.

They do this to sound supremely intelligent in order to fool those who think that they themselves are supremely intelligent.

It seems, though, that Nigerian e-mail scammers may have a different approach.

You might imagine that every time Dr. Heinous Troutbender of Nigeria writes to you to say that he will pay you at least $2 million -- if you'll only let him use your bank account for a minute -- no one is fooled.

And yet these scammers seem to persist in their methods. Can it be merely because they find it so entertaining?

An analysis by Microsoft Research suggests that they might actually be quite wise in their methods.

Microsoft Research's conclusion uses fine terms such as Receiver Operator Characteristic curves. Essentially, though, it all comes down to economics.

The scammers don't want to waste their time. They don't want false positives. They need to attract the highly gullible as quickly as possible.

As Microsoft's Cormac Herley puts it: "Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage."

If you want to make money out of the naive, the foolish or even the very lonely, you have to make your tale so ridiculous that everyone else passes it by. That way, if you get a response at all, it is more likely that you'll turn the fool into gold.

It's as if the scammers have studied cults. They have to make the vulnerable believe in something, even if that something could cost them their sanity, their wealth or even their lives.

There is no point battering down the defenses of the cynical, the worldly-wise or self-confident, when the weak make for far more promising pickings.

Which reminds me, I must write a self-help book.