Column: Do They Test E-Mail Offers in Nigeria?

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There must be a direct marketing school for Nigerian e-mail scam copywriters. Their work is worded so similarly.


Nigerian e-mail scams, also known as advance-fee frauds and 419 scams supposedly after the applicable Nigerian criminal code, usually arrive as e-mail purporting to be from a Nigerian official asking for help spiriting a huge sum of cash out of the country in return for a large cut.


Typically, people who fall for these pitches are told that "complications" have arisen requiring upfront money for taxes, attorney fees and/or bribes. These "complications" arise repeatedly, usually until the "victim," for lack of a better word, runs out of money or quits. People also reportedly have been sucked into traveling to Nigeria or neighboring countries, only to be forced to pay to get out.


It's difficult to feel sorry for people who fall for these ploys. After all, to be suckered, they must be convinced they are effortlessly swiping millions of dollars.


But judging by the number of 419 scams that arrive here daily, Nigerian e-mail fraud is working like gangbusters. Read enough of them and they conjure a picture of legions of Nigerian direct response copywriters in windowless sweatshops pecking at keyboards, endlessly looking for the subject line that will get today's best open rate: "Hmmm, should it read 'URGENT ASSISTANCE?' ... 'BUSINESS PROPOSAL?' ... 'TRUST & CONFIDENTIAL?' "


Also, the approaches can be truly innovative.


Recently, one arrived from "Ahmed Akeem" that began, "As you read this, I don't want you to feel sorry for me, because, I believe everyone will die someday."


See the empathy? Already Ahmed and I have something in common. I, too, believe everyone will die someday. Uncanny.


Nigerian scam e-mails usually begin with blatant appeals to greed: "Appeal for assistance to claim the sum of US$45,000,000.00 and lodge in safe bank account, on behalf of my family," for example. Also common is the sorry-for-the-intrusion lead: "Good day, I am Edward Mulete JR. the son of Mr. STEVE MBEKI MULETE from Zimbabwe. I am sorry this mail will surprise you, though we do not know, my mother Mrs. Clara got your contact through the International Chamber of Commerce."


Ah, the International Chamber of Commerce, the agency tasked with the entire planet's economic development. And it has my name on file! Thank you, Mrs. Clara, for combing through 2 billion names to reach those under "M."


Ahmed's appeal continues:


"I have been diagnosed with esophageal cancer which was discovered very late, due to my laxity in caring for my health. It has defiled [sic] all forms of medicine, and right now I have only about a few months to live, according to medical experts. I have since lost my power of speech and can only manage to write now, as that has been the only way I am able to communicate."


Having "defiled" medicine, Ahmed apparently isn't up for a probing telephone conversation. Ahmed loses DM-creative points by limiting the response channels. However, he gains by using another common DM technique: the response deadline, as in "please respond before I die."


Ahmed also is impressive when it comes to the offer.


Nigerian e-mail scams usually enlist recipients' help to rip off the government. But the beauty of scams, speaking strictly academically, is that the offer - second only in importance to the list - can be changed at will. After all, it's a scam. Is that $50 million offer showing response fatigue? Make it $80 million. Or how about testing offering a lump-sum payment versus payouts over time?


Ahmed, however, doesn't specify an amount. He simply says he has lots of his own cash and wants to save his soul by giving it to charities. He claims that he tried to enlist family members' help but that they screwed him.


"The last of my money is the huge cash deposit that I have with a Bank," he writes. [Notice it's not a bank, but a Bank.] "I will want you to help me collect this deposit and dispatched [sic] it to charity organizations."


Ahmed appeals to two targets. A gullible, dishonest and greedy recipient will try to screw him just like his family did. A gullible, honest recipient with a soft spot for charity will still try to help him.


Ahmed is a DM diamond in the rough. One wonders how he'll top the "I-only-have-a-few-months-to-live" offer, though.


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