Sunday, 3 February 2013

Comment #19: -- The Pseudoscience In Spam Mail

Date Started: 29/1/13
Date Completed: 30/1/13
Date First Published: 3/2/13

Here’s a short one – a mini mini-essay, if you like – on the pseudo-science exhibited by spam mail.

My intent, here, is to demonstrate how pseudo-science isn’t limited to the charlatans on TV, dolled up in white coats, boasting qualifications they bought from Ashwood University, and telling you where to shove this, to make your cancer go away...

The common theme in spam mail, like this one, which i received recently, is the declaration of a claim, and the claimant waiting to see who’ll be gullible enough to believe it.

But this is the case with just-about all pseudo-sciences – from water divining, to acupuncture, to Religion – the claims exist, and the profit is reaped (whether monetary, energetic, or emotional) when someone falls for it.

This is why the claims in spam e-mails sometimes seem glaringly erroneous to most – the pseudoscience is entrepreneurial, and deliberately formulated to coax money out of people – whereas in some cases, the best being Religion, the motivation is sincere but misguided good intentions, and so the patterns of deception slowly grow over time, by accident, so that most are normalised to it (hence the regular allusions to Religion as an ‘opiate of the masses’).

For the entrepreneur behind this spam mail, seeing a market ‘out there’, they do not want to waste time with competent, knowledgeable people – they want ignorant, gullible, possibly senile people, who will be easier to persuade out of their money.

Let’s take a look at the patterns in this e-mail:

In our example, the sender is marked as heleneastwood @ accountant . com. To me, and many others, this a red flag, because i know no Helen Eastwood, and have no recollection of prior dealings with accountant . com. The spammers are deliberately selecting for people who will not raise this as a problem, in their minds.

Next, we have the obvious clash between the sender’s address, and the content: a prize from the Africa Cup of Nations. Incidentally, i had heard of this particular scam, via Redi Tlhabi, on Talk Radio 702 (a South African programme) so the content receives an extra red flag, in me, for that. But again, the spammers are deliberately selecting for people who will not notice that this is a problem.

Third, we have the problem that i have not entered any prize draws relating to the Africa Cup of Nations – but someone else might have done, and in any case, they might believe that they had been benevolently entered, by someone else. The spammers are deliberately selecting for people who will pseudo-rationalise this; not bother to investigate it; and so not notice that this is a problem with the correspondence.

Fourth, we have the ‘clumsily’ miswritten monetary figure. Why “£3000.000.00” and not “£3,000,000”? This isn’t hard to get right. Again, the spammers are deliberately selecting for people who will not notice that this is a problem.

Fifth, we have the request for unnecessary details – they don’t need to know anything about me – they’ve already decided to give me the money, haven’t they? I need to know more about them, and yet –“Full names”; “City”; “Country”; “Cell No”; “Age”; “Occupation”; “Email”; “Ref”.

Hang on – don’t they already know my e-mail address?

The frustrating thing about this is that banks do it, too – they ask us for details they already have. And if they’re dealing with a payment, they might ask us for extra details that we can read straight off the card in our hands. If we’d stolen the card, how is asking for other numbers on the card supposed to help?!? It might help with e-communication, but it doesn’t help with identification of the card-carrier.

...anyway, back to the point, for a round-up:

§  They claim to be Helen Eastwood, who is either, supposedly, the chairman of the Africa Cup of Nations Organizing Committee, or representing the chairman of the Africa Cup of Nations Organizing Committee
§  They claim that you’re in / have been entered into a prize draw
§  They claim that you’ve won a prize
§  They claim that that prize is £3,000,000
§  They claim that sending them your details will enable you to access the money

...and they’ll get your money if you believe the claims.

And this is exactly how quacks and cultists and assorted-other-pseudo-scientists work – they make claims, and wait for people to bite onto the metaphorical bait.

There are, of course, other types of scams out there, which exploit the victim’s greed/desperation, and lack of awareness (bluntly put: "ignorance").

This web-site presents spam mail exploiting Hurricane Katrina - ‘Hurricane Katrina Scams’, they call them. The emphasis, with these, is to exploit altruistic desperation – the will to ‘do your bit’ without having to do much work, yourself.

Curiously (or maybe not) Religion seems pervasive in this realm, with “Dear Beloved Sister& Brother In Christ”, and the "wrath of God" elements.
(Well, the Religious did invent prayer – the ultimate expression of a ‘will to ‘do your bit’ without having to do much work, yourself’. Scratch that – without having to do any work yourself!)

So spam e-mails are not a peculiar aspect of life – they are common, in essence, to the pseudo-science which permeates our culture.

They exist in the construction of baseless claims, and the fabrication of verisimilitude for those claims, which results in harm to the people who become victims of the behaviour.

And, again, the only way we can deal with this, is to be Scientific – to stay skeptical, and to be as aware as we can, of the world around us.

Stay skeptical, people. Stay skeptical.

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