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Genre, Narrative and the Nigerian Letter in Electronic Mail

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Abstract

Spam, or unsolicited email, has become an unavoidable fact of life for anyone with an email account. Spam emails generally reflect genres seen in traditional print format such as advertisements, memos, etc. One particularly interesting form of spam is the "Nigerian letter". Nigerian letters offer "get rich quick" schemes to engage recipients into advance fee fraud activities. This paper provides an empirical analysis of 111 Nigerian letters received by email to explore key elements including the use of form, purpose, and tone. We propose that the use of rich narrative appeals to strong emotions like greed, guilt and lust, and invokes archetypal myths of windfall fortunes in an effort to illicit behaviors which, for the most part, are counter-factual
Genre, Narrative and the “Nigerian Letter” in Electronic Mail
Wendy L. Cukier
Ryerson University
Faculty of Business,
Information Technology Management
Toronto, ON, Canada
wcukier@ryerson.ca
Eva J. Nesselroth
Ryerson University
Joint Program in
Communication and Culture
Toronto, ON, Canada
Ryerson University
enesselr@ryerson.ca
Susan Cody
Faculty of Business,
School of Business Management
Toronto, ON, Canada
Ryerson University
scody@ryerson.ca
Abstract
Spam, or unsolicited email, has become an
unavoidable fact of life for anyone with an email
account. Spam emails generally reflect genres seen in
traditional print format such as advertisements, memos,
etc. One particularly interesting form of spam is the
“Nigerian letter”. Nigerian letters offer “get rich quick”
schemes to engage recipients into advance fee fraud
activities. This paper provides an empirical analysis of
111 Nigerian letters received by email to explore key
elements including the use of form, purpose, and tone.
We propose that the use of rich narrative appeals to
strong emotions like greed, guilt and lust, and invokes
archetypal myths of windfall fortunes in an effort to illicit
behaviors which, for the most part, are counter- factual.
1. Introduction
Spam is one of the principal forms of communication
on the Internet today and is comprised of a range of
genres, many of which are adapted from print; some are
hybrids and some are entirely new [11]. By definition,
genre presupposes or depends upon contextual or
situational coherence, a community, or an organization
[36]. As we have seen, spam operates on several levels
[11] and is often not what it seems to be: sales brochures
may be aimed at mining email addresses rather than
selling goods. Lottery announcement may be Trojan
horses delivering viruses. Nevertheless, different forms
of spam comprise different genres, and one genre often
masks another [11].
In this paper, we explore the narrative and generic
elements of one specific form of spam, the “Nigerian
letter”. These letters resemble personally addressed
correspondences that are aimed to engage the recipient in
an advance fee fraud scheme. The Internet has enabled
this genre to proliferate and evolve from its origin as a
printed form of communication to one that takes
advantage of the accessibility and ease of the digital
medium. Senders of Nigerian letters now have access to
millions of email accounts around the globe that make
this scheme more insidious and lucrative than ever
before.
Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences - 2007
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©
1530-1605/07 $20.00 2007 IEEE
While email can be an impersonal medium, the
Nigerian letter is a form of correspondence that seeks to
mask indiscriminate solicitation with language that
creates an illusion of intimacy, sincerity, and urgency.
We present an empirical analysis of Nigerian letters, a
description of how these schemes operated, and how
narrative and genre operate as tools of deception and
manipulation. We conclude with a brief discussion of
how the digital medium supports this form of mythic
narrative, that is a very real threat to many users of the
Internet.
2. Background
2.1. Nigerian Letters
Each genre of spam operates according to a certain
semiotic logic of recognizable signs and indices. The
Nigerian letter is an adaptation of a fraudulent scheme
whose history dates back to the sixteenth century [53].
Through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, these letters
evolved to take advantage of newer modes of
communication, particularly the fax machine. The
proliferation of these letters was so great that the United
States Secret Service issued an “Advance Fee Fraud
Advisory” regarding Nigerian letters [51]. The Federal
Trade Commission also identified the “Nigerian letter” in
its study of false claims in spam [19]. With the rise of
email in the 1990’s, the scheme proliferated
exponentially, since the cost of email is negligible and its
reach is virtually unlimited. According to one source,
perpetrators expect a 1-5% response rate, which makes
this a very low-cost high-return operation [41]1. The
email scam is also referred to as "Advance Fee Fraud"
and “419 Fraud” after the relevant section of the
Criminal Code of Nigeria which criminalizes such
activities [51]. Flourishing under successive
governments of Nigeria, the Nigerian letter has evolved
into a US$5 billion global scam [34].
2.1.2. How the scam works. Nigerian letters operate like
many typical advance fee frauds in which a sum of
money is promised; however, the victim must first pay a
number of ‘fees’ in order to procure the grand sum.
Generally, the target receives an e-mail from an insider
or alleged “official” representing a present or former
foreign government or agency. Often the writer will
assert that there are unclaimed funds that are being held
in customs or at a bank. To release the funds, the writer
asks the victim to declare himself or herself as the
rightful inheritor of the funds. For his or her cooperation,
the victim is promised a percentage of the funds. Initially
1Response rates are indicated by a reply to the message and do not
necessarily infer that money is exchanged.
targeting businessmen, the scam has now expanded to
include the average citizen due to the low cost of email
transmission in relation to potential gains. For the funds
to be released, the victim must provide further fees and
payments, usually by wire transfer, for various taxes and
expenses to consummate the transaction. The victim
must pay these fees (attorney fees, duty, taxes, etc.) to
process the transaction, and the sender claims that “just
one more” fee/stamp/duty/form, etc. must be processed
before the millions can be released. In addition, the
victim either sets up an account in Nigeria, or uses his
own account to transfer fees from stolen checks. In a
striking double jeopardy, this activity then criminalizes
the victim. He or she could be charged with fraud for
passing stolen checks [53]. Generally, the process is
predicated on two factors: 1) escalating commitment to
keep the victim on the line – the more the victim invests,
the less likely he or she is to walk away; and 2) myth-
building – the scams creates an illusion of great wealth,
or the ‘pot of gold’ that is just one email away.
The sophistication of these scams is stunning.
Victims are convinced of the authenticity of the proposal
by the numerous documents bearing seemingly official
Nigerian government letterhead, stamps and seals. There
have been cases where victims have had meetings with
genuine Nigerian Government officials in their offices to
discuss a 419 "deal" during office hours. There are also
cases of victims verifying the phone number of the
relevant Parastatal from the Lagos directory assistance,
calling that number, asking for the scammer by name,
and getting put through to a personal phone line during
office hours [13].
The scams can become extremely dangerous as the
process advances and the stakes escalate. In the final
phase, the victim will be asked to meet someone in
Nigeria (or New York or Amsterdam). At that point he
may be killed, extorted, kidnapped for ransom, or may be
given a trunk of blackened money – for which he will be
charged a “laundering fee” to wash the dyed bills [27].
When the victim receives the “cleaned” money, it will, of
course, be counterfeit or just blank slips of paper. To add
insult to injury, victims who call the police and lay
charges in the hopes of getting their money back, are
often contacted by someone claiming to be a state
official. The official will assure that the victim’s stolen
funds have been recovered, but in order to get the money
back, a fee must be paid – and the scam begins again [1].
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Advance fee fraud in 37 countries [49]
resident active
scam rings
total active
resident
scammers
profits before
sharing with other
scamrings in
million US$
AFF losses
suffered in 2005
by companies and
private citizens in
million US$
USA 8 3800 370 720
UK 20 2030 284 520
Spain 18 2530 262 320
Japan 1 3 21 320
Germany 10 1270 137 210
Canada 5 3200 410 172
South
Africa 3 780 80 136
France 7 810 119 130
Italy 8 200 70 120
Switzerland 3 120 65 102
Nigeria 36 n/a n/a n/a
other 433.7
totals 202 18310 2744,3 3183,7
Authorities attribute the rise in these advance fee
scams to the collapse of the Nigerian oil industry in the
1980’s, paired with a very corrupt government (under
Sani Achaba) [48]. These conditions led to
unemployment and desperation and many sought
alternative ways of obtaining income. Nigeria scores a
1.9 on the corruption scale (1 indicating the most corrupt
public officials, 10 being the least on the Transparency
Index), second only to Bangladesh [46]. A former letter
writer in Nigeria claims that top scammers will recruit
young, literate teenagers and college students [13]. They
speak and write English and can be easily tempted into
the job (or coerced). They also have sufficient computer
skills to execute the process. They are shown the fruits of
the labor – the luxury cars, houses, women, etc., that can
be had through this kind of work. Young men are then
paid to do most of the grunt work (i.e., collecting email
addresses, writing the letters) and are expected to pass on
any potential “clients” to their bosses) [13]. Such
structures resemble drug ring or mafia methods of
recruitment and retention.
3. Literature Review
Because this paper brings together several topics, we
have reviewed the literature on spam, genre, advertising
and the Internet to provide the relevant context for our
analysis.
3.2. Genre and Narrative
3.2.1. Genre History. In his book, Anatomy of Criticism,
Frye proposes that virtually all literature could be
categorized according to universal genres with defined
structure, rules and characteristics [22]. Genres are the
literary conventions or “codes” associated with particular
forms. Drawing on the basic Aristotelian notions of
genre – comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony – he
develops a taxonomy of the myths and archetypal
patterns associated with them. Genre is “typified
rhetorical action based in recurrent situations” [33].
Swales notes that genres have similar structures, stylistic
features, content and intended audiences [45]. However,
as Chandler notes, hierarchical taxonomy of genres is not
a neutral or “objective procedure” [9].
Genre has been used as a means of examining
electronic communication [10] and, more recently, genre
has also been applied to the study of advertising [11; 6].
Stern, for example, explored the use of classical allegory
in contemporary advertising [44]. Communications
scholars have used genre to explore various forms of
media, for example, when examining the advertising
aimed at children [9; 25; 35].
Advertising content and structure have been studied
by Mick and Mitchell and Olson [35; 37]. Laskey, Day
and Crask argue that advertisements should be
categorized not only by the message content (i.e., what is
said) but also by structured format (i.e., how it is said)
[33]. The message’s construction is an important
feature, as articulated by Eldridge and Wells, Burnett and
Moriarty [17; 50]. Scholars of advertising have
employed genre, narrative and other concepts as analytic
tools.
While genre is valuable as an analytical framework
for exploring email communications like spam, previous
work has suggested that spam uses genre on a number of
levels. Different genres of spam can be identified, but we
also see spam that employs manifest genre to shape
expectations and behavior while concealing its true
purpose [11].
The central cultural role of myth, defined as narrative
“tale or story”, stems from its function in explaining the
nature of the world. Myths are the hereditary stories – the
meta-narratives – that shape sense-making. Research has
explored ways in which advertisements invoke these
myths, for example, around consumption. As Stern
suggests, “different mythic genres encode different
values as preferred modes of conduct and life goals [44].
Each genre presents a typical hero, plot and outcome,
often recognizable as a descendent of ancient stock
reworked in advertising” [44]. Stern explains that the
study of mythic plots, heroes and values can serve to
create more effective advertising messages and better our
understanding of consumer behavior [44].
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While it is possible to develop taxonomies of spam
genre which include the Nigerian letter, the content of
Nigerian letters also relies heavily on elements of one
genre in particular – the comedy – invoking mythic
elements or motifs found in many versions of the rags to
riches story. Brooker suggests that “the rags to riches”
story is on of the Seven Basic Plots found in virtually all
stories [7]. According to Frye, the genre “comedy” is
concerned with integration of society, the classic “happy
ending”. Mythic comedy deals with acceptance into the
society of gods, after a number of trials, the hero is
rewarded with riches, power and/or love. While Frye
traces the heritage of classic myths and archetypes
through “literature”, similar analyses have been
undertaken of popular culture (e.g., Campbell) fairytales
and folklore (e.g., Thompson) [8; 22; 47]. Thompson
goes even further, developing an extensive index of
folkloric motifs or elements. A motif is a plot element,
character or object that may recur over and over in
various folk tales. Thompson’s directory contains
40,000 distinct motifs found in a variety of folk
literatures [47]. Included are myths, legends, tall tales,
and other oral narratives, not just folk fairy tales. We see
similar myths and narrative structures embedded in
folkloric tales. The hero is presented with an obstacle,
which he or she overcomes with human or supernatural
help, and in the end “lives happily ever after” often with
riches beyond his or her wildest dreams. Our interest is
in applying an analysis of these mythic elements or
motifs to spam that take the form of the Nigerian letter.
3.2.2. Consumer Behavior. Nigerian letters are, as we
have seen, one of the most lucrative forms of internet
fraud. While the vast majority of recipients do not
respond, investigators estimate that between 1 and 5
percent do reply, with varying degrees of involvement
[38]. Here, we explore the genre and narrative elements
of this form of electronic communications that are
designed to elicit responses. There are several aspects of
social psychology which are relevant to advertising and
in an extreme form to internet scams. Consumer behavior
research discusses the range of ways advertisements seek
to produce responses including understanding, desire,
and empathy [45].
Puto and Wells distinguish information and
transformation advertising and Holbrook and Hirschheim
examine the role of fantasies, feelings and fun in
advertising [26; 39]. Research of conventional
advertising has explored the ways in which emotions
affect consumer behaviour. Studies in advertising are
useful here because Nigerian letters are essentially
advertisements cloaked as personal correspondences and
hence, they utilize similar persuasive devices to
manipulate the emotional state of the reader. Emotions
are mental states of readiness that arise from appraisals
of events or one’s own thoughts. Emotions as markers,
mediators, and moderators of consumer responses and
have a profound effect on cognitive processes [4]. Other
research has looked at the role of fantasy in
counterfactual thinking (CFT) – that is, imagining what
might have been or might still be, or comparing reality
with what might have been or might still be. Some forms
of advertising, for example, lottery advertising exploits
the normal human capacity for counterfactual thinking.
Certain features - high personal involvement, direction of
counterfactual thinking, affective assimilation and
contrast effects, and perceived proximity of actual
outcome to counterfactual alternatives – can be exploited
to promote behavior which on the surface is irrational [3;
4; 24; 32].
3.2.3. Social Psychology and Fraud. Consumer
research has also been applied to the exploration of how
consumers detect (or fail to detect) fraud over the
internet and the elements of communication which can
trigger the detection of deception. Elements such as
inconsistent clues – too good to be true promises – will
lead consumers to reject claims [24; 32].
However, some consumers do not respond to these
clues or choose to overlook them. According to the
Department of Justice, internet fraud employs techniques
of persuasion which can overcome normal resistance to
deception [1]. For example, rather than employing a
central route to persuasion using systemic and logical
arguments to stimulate a favorable response, prompting
the listener or reader to think deeply and reach
agreement, internet fraud relies on a peripheral route to
persuasion. It uses peripheral cues and mental shortcuts
to bypass logical argument and counterargument and to
trigger acceptance without thinking deeply about the
matter. Criminals can do this by using techniques that
trigger strong emotions at the outset. These surges of
strong emotion, like other forms of distraction, serve to
interfere with the victim's ability to use logical thinking
[32]. Frauds also rely on he false consensus effect or the
development of empathy, leading the victim to believe
that he and the writer share the same expectation.
Finally, they seek to create the impression that the sender
is sincere, as this will make it less likely that the victim
will scrutinize the content of the message [53].
The techniques of building peripheral routes to
persuasion include the use of six techniques [53].
•Authority. People are highly likely, in the right
situation, to be responsive to assertions of authority, even
when the person who purports to be in a position of
authority is not physically present. On the Internet, the
high-tech nature of the medium itself can lend an
impression of authority to emails as they are read on
screen.
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•Scarcity. People are also highly responsive to
indications that a particular item they may want is in
short supply or available for only a limited period.
•Liking and similarity. It is a truly human tendency to
like people who are like us. We are more likely to
identify with a person who has characteristics identical
or similar to our own – places of birth, or tastes in sports,
music, art, or other personal interests.
•Reciprocation. A well-recognized rule of social
interaction requires that if someone gives us (or promises
to give us) something, we feel a strong inclination to
reciprocate by providing something in return.
•Commitment and consistency. Society also places great
store on consistency in a person's behavior. The use of
writing is one way in which social custom and practice
makes us susceptible to appeals to consistency,
specifically that a person’s consistency and commitment
can be recorded in print.
•Social proof. In many social situations, one of the
mental shortcuts on which we rely to determine what
course of action is most appropriate, is to look to see
what other people in the vicinity are doing or saying.
[53]
4. Our Study
4. 1. Purpose
Our principal purpose was to gain an understanding of
this genre, its characteristics, and the elements and
motifs employed to encourage readers to enter into the
proposed arrangement.
4.2. Data
Our sample comprises 111 Nigerian letters collected
over a 12 month period from the accounts of three
university professors. Duplicate letters were eliminated
from the sample. Duplication was assessed by the
content of the letters rather than the subject headers or
sender identification.
4.2.2. Analysis. This project used both content and
semiotic analysis. The coding sheets identified a number
of elements linked to the theory of genre, myth, narrative
and motifs. Specifically, they included folkloric
portrayals of archetypal characters and themes such as
the ‘pot of gold’ (e.g., an unclaimed trunk of money,
declarations of widowhood, illness, righteousness, etc.)
Letters were first read for generic categories such as
subject, source, function, subject line/body relationships,
structure, addressee, signer, action desired, tone, use of
language. We also examined, in some detail, the implied
relationship between writer and reader, specifically the
devices employed to encourage suspension of disbelief,
the setting and characters in the story and “plot” or story
line, the persona of the narrator, the basis of the appeal,
the quest or task, the promised reward, and other
elements. The letters were coded twice, by two coders
and then verified for inter-rater reliability. The coded
letters and their elements were then clustered around
emerging themes or categories.
4.3. Findings
Our finding revealed numerous consistencies in
form, purpose, and tone. The stylistic devices generally
appeal to compelling emotions through genre. Below are
descriptions of rhetorical devices that were found in all
of the letters sampled.
Suspension of disbelief. One of the remarkable
abnormalities of these letters is that they are seldom
personally addressed and there is rarely any persuasive
explanation about why the recipient was selected. Often,
there is a reference to an unnamed colleague who
vouched for the recipient’s trustworthiness. As such, the
letters evoke a sense of having been “chosen” and that
one has been deemed worthy of inclusion in a secretive,
lucrative, and rare opportunity. The decision to respond
to such letters, even when the subject heading or
salutation are clearly impersonal (e.g., Hello Friend, or
no salutation is provided) is an act that defies reason. If
one were really the next of kin to a wealthy diplomat,
surely the letter would be addressed to the recipient by
name. On the other hand, a lack of a personal salutation
or address can enhance the notion that one has been
randomly or mistakenly selected, and that the letter
offers a unique and lucky opportunity.
The setting. Many letters apply current events (mainly
political) to leverage sympathy (massacres, corruption,
civil war, exploitation…) or actual plane crashes, where
they use the names of the deceased, paired with a bbc.uk
link to a story of the crash to legitimize the claims and
also, presumably, to generate pathos.
The persona of the narrator. Sometimes the person
writing poses as the rightful owner of the money – often
as a function of inheritance. Many writers claim to be the
son, daughter or wife of a rich man. Authority is often
invoked in the position of the writer – the assistant to
Charles Taylor, a bank manager, the senior civil servant,
the wife of the millionaire.
Scarcity. There is only one pot of gold and urgent action
is needed. Often the offer is time limited. The irony is
that the letters are seldom personally addressed but they
use a variety of conventions which establish intimacy in
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other ways. Sometimes the writer claims to be a business
associate or partner. Other times they pose simply as a
service provider.
Form. These letters are unusually longer than other
forms of spam, often exceeding two printed pages.
The length, level of detail, and intensely personal
nature of the letters are unique to this genre.
Reflective of all aspects of this type of fraud, the
process of trust building, narrative creation, and
personal interaction are lengthy exercises. Unlike
other forms of spam that keep their message brief and
to the point (e.g., advertisements for virility
products), these letters are purposefully rich and
protracted. For example, one writer pleads,
“I had either beautiful daughters and they are
all at the junior college level. Owing to our
tradition. A spouse without a male child is
considered a taboo to the husbands family,
Simply put because of this ugly situation my
brothers and sisters in law have branded me a
useless woman.”(sic).
The letters provide a high level of extraneous detail,
presumably in order to increase believability and to
establish an air of intimacy. If a recipient responds, the
interaction between the perpetrator and the victim may
take months or even years, in the weaving of a complex
balance of intimacy and dependence (i.e., the writer
becomes dependent on the victim’s participation, and the
victim becomes dependant on the writer’s trust that he or
she will fulfill their commitment to help and to complete
the transaction by delivering a return on the investment
of the initial fees). Continued and prolonged
correspondence creates a false notion of familiarity in
which the victim becomes less likely to suspect that the
claims are false [48]. Should the victim become
suspicious, the perpetrator will invite other collaborators
into the scheme to bolster the illusion. For example, a
perpetrator may have someone posing as a lawyer or
customs official telephone the victim, thus creating an
atmosphere of authority and urgency [48].
Language. The language in this genre of spam is usually
ornate and pleading, with archaic expressions and, at the
same time, with obvious mishandling of standard
locutions, syntax and idioms. For example, while some
of the letters are addressed to Dear Sir/Madame or Dear
Friend, an equal number are addressed to Brethren, Dear
Beloved One, Greetings in the Name of the Lord, Salute
you in the name of the Lord. Religious language and
hyperbole are typical and serve to create an intimate
tone, a shared belief system, and unexpected
graciousness.
According to one author of the letters [13], this is
entirely deliberate (save for the grammatical and spelling
errors). One former letter writer claims the verboseness
is fashioned to emulate the tone of Nigerian soap operas
(partially because many of their targets are Nigerians).
The messages are crafted to sound “out of touch”,
evoking the tone of a rich, isolated, and sheltered
diplomat who is in exile [13]. Another claims he “was
told to write like a classic novelist would…Very old
world, very thick sentences.” to create an excessively
gracious and peculiar tone [52]. The intent is to make the
reader feel sympathetic to the isolation of the sender, but
also slightly superior and more competent, so that he
assumes he might have the upper-hand in the transaction
[13].
The appeal. The appeal is generally based on emotion –
primarily greed, pure and simple, but often laced with
pathos. Almost all letters make reference to a tragedy,
either contextual – a war, political event, tsunami or
plane crash. In the cases of the charitable appeals the
writer is generally dying of esophageal, breast, or
unspecified cancer. Often, these letters prey upon the
reader’s vulnerability and pity. For instance, one letter
asks the reader to sympathize with the ‘obnoxious’
treatment of women in her country (Sierra Leone), since
the writer was not permitted to inherit her late husband’s
estate because she had no male children. Only with the
support of the reader, to whom she promised a portion,
could she access the funds. Another letter from Sudan
asks the reader for support in the aftermath of the
“Attack of tsunami”.
Myth and motifs. Myth is the most powerful device in the
persuasive nature of Nigerian letters. Apart from the
direct appeal to emotions – primarily greed and pathos –
they also, at a fundamental level, apply narratives which
invoke well known cultural myths including the rags to
riches story – as well as other familiar motifs (the
wealthy widow, the lost treasure trove, the imprisoned
woman, the redistribution of pilfered money, the victim
of cruelty, the victim of society, etc). These mythical
narratives allow the victim to play mythical roles: the
rescuer, the lucky finder of lost treasure, the benevolent
hero, the sympathizer, the good thief. Essentially,
recipients want to believe, in spite of the fairly obvious
questions, that they have been selected – they have
finally found their pot of gold, fairy godmother, damsel
in distress etc. The need to feel special, lucky, or heroic
are fundamental to the human experience. The
perpetrators of these fraudulent schemes ensnare victims
by manipulating these core desires through narrative
genre. Most letters attempt to appeal to multiple
emotions. For example, the letter which claimed to be
written by a woman who was widowed when her
husband died of AIDS first appeals to the reader’s sense
of pathos. Next, she promises the reader a percentage of
her husband’s fortune, which she would like to keep safe
for her children. If the reader’s interest is not piqued by
the opportunity to help a widow and her children, then
the promise of easy money will appeal to his sense of
greed. Some letters layer catastrophe (civilian massacres,
terminal illness, and auto or plane crashes) upon political
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unrest, sexism, discrimination, and, ironically, systemic
corruption.
The plot. There are many variants on the following plots
which build upon archetypal myths:
Virtually every Nigerian letter invokes the universal
story of rags to riches with the promise of easy money or
windfall fortune or Pot of Gold. This story is so
pervasive, across cultures, and has such a strong appeal
to our hopes and aspirations that it leads people to
behave irrationally and engage in a scheme that is
incredulous. The writer is seeking a business partner:
typically there is a situation which has led to a large
amount of money in a bank account and, for a wide
range of reasons, the writer needs your assistance to
access the money in order to circumvent local
restrictions or to pose as an heir to the fortune. The
writer may be a banker or the personal assistant to a
despot such as Charles Taylor. The recipient is asked to
claim to be next of kin to get the funds released. Or, the
writer has found a treasure trove – ill gotten gains from a
dictator, treasure from the deposed king, or a deceased
and heirless diplomat – and wants your help to access
them.
The characters. Often the central character, who is the
principal source of the money, draws on motifs from
folklore and fairy tales.
1) Robin Hood: Typically, the writer is a contractor who,
for reasons that are often highly complex, has over-
invoiced a government sponsored contract and needs
your assistance to extract the money. Often they are
contracts in the petrol and mining industries or for
agriculture. The writer needs the recipient to pose as a
contractor. Given former president Abacha’s
embezzlement of nearly $1billion in funds that have been
only partially recovered, these letters tempt readers into
dubious acts in order to get access to the money. This
type of scheme relies on the greed and dishonesty of the
recipient. Any discomfort with the notion of stealing can
be countered or justified as an act of wealth
redistribution from a corrupt government, and the fraud
victim can believe he has reclaimed funds that did not
belong to holder anyway. Tales of political strife or
bloody massacres help to justify the theft of the funds.
In effect, they are robbing from the rich to give to the
poor, an internet version of Robin Hood. Another variant
on this motif is the story of the wrongfully abused or
persecuted innocent. Stories abound through history of
victims of greed and corruption who lose what is
rightfully theirs. Robin Hood, for example, was thrust
off his land by evil Prince John. Snow White was driven
from her home by her jealous step mother [47]. In these
letters, the writer is a victim of circumstance or
misfortune and needs the recipient’s help in accessing
their rightful inheritance. A number of writers claim to
be white Zimbabweans forced off their land, unable to
access their fortunes.
2) The damsel in distress. In these letters, the writer is in
danger and needs help in order to escape. The recipient’s
assistance will be rewarded. The sender may even attach
a photo of a pretty girl whom she claims to be. She will
claim to be American, and in dire trouble. Either the
victim of robbery or some other mishap, she needs your
help. She needs to get out of Nigeria and needs cash to
do so – either to bribe border officials, pay hotel bills,
replace a stolen airline ticket, get out of prison. These
letters offer an opportunity for the reader to become a
hero and rescue the hapless maiden.
3) The long lost benefactor or fairy godmother. In these
letters, the narrator may be the character or, more often,
their agent. The writer is dying, usually without heirs,
and wants an associate to help distribute an improbably
large inheritance to charity. Sometimes, he or she was a
rich, bad person until she found God and became a born
again Christian. There may be no relatives or relatives
may be portrayed as untrustworthy and ungodly.
Religion, righteousness, and God are often invoked to
build the recipient’s trust. Guilt, pain, agony, helping
orphans etc. is usually part of the plea and the victim gets
a share of the charity funds.
The quest or task. Generally, these letters ask the reader
to send money or banking information, confidence,
discretion, and trust. Some of the situations are straight
forward – you are to distribute charitable funds and take
a cut. Others skirt the law: you are to act as the “front” or
as a means of circumventing arbitrary and negligible
national laws. For example, one sender claims to have
access to unclaimed Holocaust funds that will be
distributed through a Caribbean bank, but that a national
citizen cannot release the funds. The victim is asked to
help because the customs or banking officials will not
question the legitimacy of a foreigner’s claim to fortune.
Reciprocation or Reward. There is always a promise of
reward that is out of proportion to the effort required.
Social proof is provided by the references to settings –
events and people are referenced, often with specific
verification – a press clipping describing a plain crash or
a treasure trove. Typically the letters cite an improbable
but precise sum of money and offer as payment for your
services, a percentage ranging from 5% to 40% [53].
Evolution. While the majority of these letters evoke
African scenarios based on local events and politics,
mutations have emerged where the writer claims to be an
Iraqi or American soldier who has come into possession
of a stash of treasure in one of Saddam Hussein’s former
palaces, or a European banker or other financial official
who wishes to make a large bank transfer but cannot find
a trustworthy partner in his home country. These may
claim to be from the United Kingdom, Denmark,
Singapore or other developed nations.
Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences - 2007
7
5. Conclusions and Implications
Our analysis, while preliminary, suggests that
Nigerian letters are a distinct genre employing a range of
common devices that are designed to appeal to greed,
charity, heroism, and other powerful and compelling
emotions. We see many elements or motifs from the
“rags to riches” myth which permeates many cultures.
The hero has a quest or task to overcome against all odds
and is aided by supernatural agent such as the fairy god
mother or a human sidekick. These rags to riches stories
are embedded in fairy tales such as Rapunzel and
Cinderella, in literature for example David Copperfield
as well as in popular tales such as Dick Whittington (and
his cat) in England and more recently, the story of
Horatio Alger, the American Dream. While the rags to
riches motif has been appropriated as “the American
dream” it actually cuts across many cultures [31].
While most recipients may quickly identify these
letters as fraudulent, the high number of victims would
indicate that the use of genre, particularly the rags to
riches myth in which windfall fortunes from unknown
benefactors are possible, is successful and manipulative
device. Ironically, both the perpetrators and the victims
are motivated by the same factor: greed. The desire to
rise out of perceived poverty (whether imagined or not)
makes both the senders and receivers of these emails
susceptible to believing that getting something for
nothing is an honorable triumph. Both parties engage in
the rags to riches myth of instant wealth, but only one
party will gain – and it is almost never the receiver.
Notions of retribution and revenge for colonialism justify
the senders’ involvement [45]. According to Dyrud,
some successful perpetrators are seen locally as “folk
heroes” [16]. One well known perpetrator, Fred Adujua,
described himself as “the black man’s Robin Hood” [16].
For the receiver, the compulsion to respond to these
letters is fuelled by notions of quick money, often paired
with a strong ego and foolish determination [48]. As a
popular Nigerian song called “I Go Chop your Dollar”
boasts, “419 is just a game. You are the loser, I am the
winner. White people greedy, I take your money and
disappear, you be the fool, I be the master” [45].
Why are there so many Nigerian letters? In part
because they work. These advance fee schemes are the
most lucrative fraudulent activity against individuals in
the United States. The average victim loses about $5000,
though some may lose hundreds of thousands of dollar,
or even their lives [16]. Why do they work? We propose
that in addition to incorporating key elements of
persuasive communications. Authority is often invoked
in the position of the writer. Scarcity – there is only one
pot of gold and urgent action is needed. Often the offer is
time limited.
Reciprocation. There is always a promise of reward,
out of proportion to the effort required. Social proof is
provided by the references to settings – events and
people are referenced, often with specific verification – a
press clipping describing a plain crash or a treasure
trove.
The letters also use a range of rhetorical and stylistic
techniques intended to reinforce intimacy and promote
trust or in some cases, a feeling of superiority.
Apart from the obvious appeal to emotions –
primarily greed but also pathos – they also, at a
fundamental level use narratives which invoke well
known cultural myths. Essentially, recipients want to
believe, in spite of the fairly obvious counter-factual
evidence, that they have been selected – they have finally
made their fortune. In this way the Nigerian letters
invoke powerful myths that permeate many different
cultures.
The rags to riches stories are deeply embedded in our
psyche in fairy tales – the story of Cinderella who hooks
her prince with the help of a fairy godmother, the story
of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the buried
treasure, or of Robin Hood, who when driven from his
land by evil Prince John, bends the rules to rob from the
rich (mostly evil) and give to the poor (mostly good),
Jack and the Bean Stock, who made an improbable deal
and ended up with the giant’s treasure, etc. All of these
fairy tales are reinforced with a variety of stories of
people who “got rich quick”. There are also the lottery
winners, the average person who suddenly inherited a
fortune from a distant relative, the overnight dot.com
millionaires. The myth of income mobility has always
exceeded the reality but rags-to-riches stories are
expressed through a number of cultural carriers. At a
certain level, it may be the invocation of elements of
these archetypal stories – the rich and evil despot whose
ill gotten gains are going to be shared, the wealthy
philanthropist who wants to do good, the oppressed
businessman or farmer who just wants to get what is
rightfully his – which lead some people to believe that “it
could happen to them” [26; 32].
We have suggested that they use archetypal myths to
appeal to emotions and lead to counterfactual behavior.
Collectively, these letters represent a compelling genre
that have adapted to electronic mail in the most predatory
and opportunistic way. With one simple email letter, they
can lure victims from across the globe. Also, the distance
that email creates between the sender and receiver serves
to intensify the mystery and, in some ways, the
plausibility of the letter. To believe that one has been
sought out by a diplomat or important figure in a far off
land can add to the sense that one has been carefully
selected and that the receiver may gain from the
interaction. Hence, the medium and the context of the
letter defy reason, but it is this very absurdity that creates
a veil of “specialness”.
The digital medium also carries its own myth of
instant wealth. As the 1990’s saw an influx of self-made
Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences - 2007
8
millionaires, the Internet became synonymous with
instant wealth and success. It could be that they very
medium itself, the World Wide Web, represents a
fantastical gold mine, in which one must only pounce on
the right opportunity when it knocks – even if the knock
arrives in one’s inbox in the form of a Nigerian letter.
For Nigerian letters, intense layering of myth and the
indiscriminant method by which they are disseminated
mask the incredulity of the promise of great riches. The
victim’s judgment of rationality may be impaired,
leading him to believe that great wealth has fallen into
his email inbox, as the power of myth is not always easy
to resist and can, perhaps, have an intensely intoxicating
effect.
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Scams are communication practices whose presence online constitutes a dramatic risk for the victims both from a financial and emotional perspective. This study observes what persuasion strategies are common to different types of scams, by focusing on a multi-genre corpus including “419” or “advance-fee fraud” and “romance” scams. In particular, this analysis describes what type of discursive devices are employed to attract the victims’ interest and subsequent trust, to the extent that they may become unable to recognize the linguistic signs which represent clear manifestations of fraud. The main hypothesis is that the scams draw considerably on errors of judgement. Following Lea et al. (2009) and their taxonomy including both motivational and cognitive judgement errors (2009: 25–34), this analysis identifies the persuasive processes adopted by the scammers in order to construct credible narratives.
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