Bryan Caplan  

What Would It Take to Make You Take a Spammer Seriously?

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Following up on my last question, what would it take to make you take a spammer seriously? Imagine that one email scam in 10,000 was genuine. How could a complete stranger from Micronesia convince you even to read his email, much less give him a chance to help you get rich quick?

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COMMENTS (19 to date)

What do you mean by "spammer"? Do you mean someone who emails strangers in bulk, or do you include someone who emails strangers, but writes each email personally?

What am I trying to sell to you in this hypothetical? I think you have to have different strategies for different products.

Here's some general strategies:

* Put something in the subject line relevant to the target's interests. For example, "Why don't rational voters want to increase their penis size?
* Address target by name
* Explain why I think the target would want to buy what I'm selling. Indicate that I've done my homework in researching the target's interests.
* If it's a complex product, try to sell the target on a demo presentation, not the final product.
* Point the target to a free ebook/webpage, that demonstrates your knowledge of the product.
* Get a referral from someone the target would know and trust, if you can.

But I'm not sure that you would call someone who put the above level of effort into their email a "spammer".

Dan Weber writes:

Find out your wife's email address and forge the mail to come from her.

You think I'm joking, but I'm not.

Garrett Schmitt writes:

Coherent spelling and grammar usually get me to read the first few lines of something, since most spam is constituted of incomplete sentences and junk code with nonsensical or unrelated subject lines.

I have been subject to some false positives with this prejudice: I've inadvertently deleted email from family on occasion.

On the other hand, I always end up skimming 419 scam emails and bogus stock advisories.

Marc writes:

A money-up-front guarantee:

"Here's (X number of dollars). I can show you how to make five times that. If you are not completely satisfied, you get to keep the (X number of dollars)."

The money would need to be in cash and sent to a meatspace mailbox of my choice.

Caliban Darklock writes:

The phase of the moon.

I have a great job. I have it because I received a completely cold recruiting email from a Vietnamese recruiter. I get these all the time; Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, and Indian recruiters are constantly emailing me to see if I want to work for them as a contractor making less than half my normal pay rate. Um... no.

Owing exclusively to the wild hare up my butt at the time, I replied to this one, which turned out to be a serious inquiry from a company in Maryland which needed to hire staff for a new office in my geographic area. I'm not making more money than I've ever made, but it's a lot more than I was making just before I came here.

There was no element of the mail itself which led me to take it seriously. I generally just check the box on GMail and click "Report Spam". Why I read this one and took it seriously, I cannot explain. But I'm glad I did.

Dr. T writes:
What Would It Take to Make You Take a Spammer Seriously?

A major stroke that damaged my frontal cortex and destroyed my ability to reason.

Lord writes:

I have wondered this myself. It would have to present an opportunity that directly reflected my needs, interests, and desires, and presented sufficient details to establish the profitability. It would have to present not just the case, but obvious objections and address them.

I receive numerous job listings, most of which I find, after excruciating detail on their demands, leave me with no reason why I should care about them in the least. Presumably aren't scammers, just incompetent employers who undoubtedly can't find anyone.

Blackadder writes:

Sneaking books onto the new releases shelf? Spamming? I know you want your book to succeed, but that's taking things a bit far, ain't it?

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

I am from Nigeria. I have a proposal for you.

John Mondragon writes:

Ok. So the video I'm linking to is from a site that is 99.9999% of the time inane and ridiculous. But I thought this was appropriate.

P.S. Ignore the low production quality and poor acting.

John Fast writes:

I can think of only two possibilities.

One is an offer of payment in advance for reading the email, on the condition that I return the payment if I think the email is worthwhile. This was invented by David Friedman and implemented by

The other is an introduction or recommendation from someone whose judgement I trust, such as yourself or David Friedman or Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Robbie writes:

A money-up-front guarantee:

"Here's (X number of dollars). I can show you how to make five times that. If you are not completely satisfied, you get to keep the (X number of dollars)."

The money would need to be in cash and sent to a meatspace mailbox of my choice.

I have received snail-mail scams with a 5 cent coin enclosed. That didn't convince me to invest but I did enjoy reading about their ridiculous pyramid scheme.

Kat writes:

I get a lot of weird mail from far-off places. Since I am listed online as a press contact for an international organization, I tend to at least glance at everything that is not obviously bogus; i.e., that has a non-nonsensical subject line and address. Some of them are offers for business deals or requests for aid; most of those get discarded unless they show real evidence of being targeted to me specifically. Not just my name, but showing background knowledge about why I might be interested. It seems reasonable to spend a small bit of effort in considering a message if they have spent effort in telling me why I should take them seriously; they're paying to send their mail in proof of work rather than money.

Peter G. Klein writes:

Bryan, I've wondered the same thing:

What if someone is doing legitimate academic research on erectile dysfunction, refinancing, lottery tickets, or the inheritance practices of Nigerian dictators? How do such people communicate their research results to colleagues? How do they send emails to grant agencies, conference organizers, and journal editors? “Dear Bob: Here is the latest draft of my paper on Ci@li$.” Perhaps such papers deserve extra credit for degree of difficulty.
SheetWise writes:

This is one reason email should cost a fee. Here's a great business plan for anyone who want to implement it.

Say it costs me 5c to send an email. The money is given to the charity of my choice, less a 1c handling fee. Everybody gets to choose their own charity, and whoever runs the program gets to keep the 1c handling fee.

To people who send emails -- why would they care? Even if you sent 200 emails a day, it would only cost you $10, and that goes to your favorite charity. On the other hand -- the spammer could never afford it, since only 1 out of a 1,000 of his emails is ever even opened.

The next step would be to have a plug-in to email clients so that they wouldn't accept mail that wasn't paid for. Bingo -- no spam.

I would gladly pay a nickel, dime, or even a quarter for every email I send just to eliminate spam. I think most people agree.

There would have to be multiple clearing houses to validate paid mail (much like registrars), and the bulk of proceeds would have to go to charity (so that you can keep the government out of it).

I think that anyone who successfully implemented this plan would make hundreds of millions, 1c at a time ...

Blondie writes:

But then, the spammer might have interest to pay in order to send spams, at the same time reducing the volume sent.

If you think you are safe now that you receive only emails you paid for, you will be more likely to open spam which was paid for than you are to open spam now.

SheetWise writes:

Blondie --

I agree that I'd be more likely to open spam with postage -- but opening it doesn't make the spammer any money. I wouldn't be any more likely to respond. The only way to stop spam is to make it unprofitable.

Dick King writes:

Streetwise, what goes wrong with prepaid email systems is that spam is normally sent from compromised computers infected with a virus, from the computer owner's account, not the spammer's. Such computers are called zombies.

The few horror stories of people presented with a $100,000 email bill will induce enough people not to sign up to make refusing to accept email from people who don't sign up impractical for many.


SheetWise writes:

Dick King --

Simply make it a prepaid account where you have $20 on account to pay for 5c emails. You simply reload when you run out of postage, just as we do with snail mail. In that case, the scenario you present couldn't happen. It would actually impose another cost on the spammer, since they have to go through the effort to compromise a machine to send a measly three or four hundred emails. As an added benefit, the owner of the compromised machine would be immediately aware that the machine had been hacked! That's worth $20.

Spammers get such lousy response rates that they'll never be able to make any money unless they can send millions of offers -- and that means it has be free.

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