Picking up the Democrats' tricks

Dec 04, 2014
<p><span class="s1">A reader's intelligence is affronted by the latest Democratic Party email campaign</span></p>

Have Nigerian email scammers taken over the US Democratic Party? Or have they just been retained as consultants? For weeks in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November, chummily cozy missives addressing me intimately as ‘Ian’ have been clogging my inbox asking for campaign donations.

The email campaign was an insult to anyone’s intelligence. I am supposed to believe that my chums Barack and Hilary have personally dropped me a line, that candidates I have never heard of have personally mentioned me by name in their staff meetings that morning, and that their daughters have written thanking me for help.

The senatorial contingent from New York is equally intimate in its greetings. As young Molly Bishop, daughter of senator Tim Bishop, writes: ‘I would be absolutely heartbroken if my dad lost. Please help.’ She later shares her father’s desperation: ‘Ian, I wouldn’t be emailing you for the sixth day in a row if it wasn’t urgent. I’m downright PLEADING with you – Molly & Tim Bishop.’

But then I looked up a perceptive paper from Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research entitled ‘Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?’ Most of the world, after a decade of inbox stuffing, would look even a giftwrapped gold-plated gift horse in the mouth if it had Nigeria on the label, so why would the scammers not be clever enough to say they came from, say Switzerland or the Netherlands, small countries that exude trustworthiness and probity?

Why do some of them persist in using upper case letters for their tall tales? Were these conditions imposed by the Nigerian Federal Scammers Trade Association? Or are they just a strong local tradition, gloating to the world: we can empty your bank accounts. Herley hit the nail on the head: email scams come in two stages – one is putting out the bait, which in the case of emails is basically free. The second stage is the expensive and time-consuming business of reeling in those who take that bait.

‘As gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify,’ he explains. ‘An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine.’

In other words, the scammers keep Nigeria in the emails because only a fool would follow through – and eons of folk wisdom correctly assesses the tenuous ties between the intellectually challenged and their monetary assets.

This is clearly the discovery that Tea Party emailers have been working on, in their case with special attention to the subset of idiocy that contains paranoia and hypochondria. But the recent Democratic fund-raisers have now realized that idiocy is bipartisan: those gullible enough to accept this easy familiarity as their due, let alone good-natured enough not to hit the delete button and get angrier and angrier as their inbox fills with insults to their intelligence, have to be an easy touch. It probably raises money for the party, but one cannot help wondering whether it does – or should – lose it votes. I certainly would not vote for someone who sat next to my desk shouting electoral slogans through a megaphone.

But the brilliant concept Herley deduced behind the emails certainly has implications and applications for garnering retail investors. One thinks of subject lines like ‘Invest in snake oil – the fuel of the future,’ or ‘Trust me, I’m a banker!’ There might be some interesting negotiations with the SEC, but if the politicians who set the rules for the regulator see fit to use such communications breakthroughs, why shouldn’t corporations?

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