Nigerian scam letters include carefully designed flaws, complete with misspellings and pidgin English, to weed out the intelligent and leave only the most vulnerable targets, new research says.

Offers of millions of dollars from a Nigerian prince are intentionally unbelievable in a scam technique perfected to target the vulnerable, gullible and elderly, according to the study.

A research paper by Microsoft’s Machine Learning Department, entitled “Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?”, has found the formula is a cost- effective way of “reducing the false positives”.

“Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike as comical... (but) our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage,” wrote principal researcher Cormac Herley.

“Since his attack has a low density of victims, the Nigerian scammer has an overriding need to reduce the false positives.

“By sending an e-mail that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favour.”

So, ingeniously, the most gullible recipients are lined up in one swoop.

The advance fee frauds, also known as “Nigerian scams”, or “419 scams” after a section in Nigeria’s criminal code, are fake internet letters sent out to millions of addresses at a time.

Researchers found the more outrageous the story, the more likely it would suck in a victim.

“A less outlandish wording that did not mention Nigeria would almost certainly gather more total responses and more viable responses, but would yield lower overall profit,” Herley said.

Last year, a Nigerian man was jailed for 12 years after scamming $1.3 million (R10.9m).

And internet safety group Netsafe says that people are still falling for the scams, and the monetary losses have a “huge impact” on individuals and families.

“So next time you open a scam e-mail and think to yourself: ‘Why bother?’, live happy in the knowledge you’re not the target market,” Herley concluded.

But Netsafe wasn’t convinced that the scams specifically targeted the vulnerable or gullible. It says it takes only a person to receive an e-mail after suffering a bad business deal, or being in the wrong frame of mind, to ignore common sense and “take a risk and reply”.

Netsafe chief technology officer Sean Lyons said: “The scammers do not set out to hit Joe Bloggs. It’s organised crime, with large call centres and well-developed processes to extract money from people. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. They know it’s a numbers game.

“It’s a nice idea that the poor English and the very obvious location of the scams are part of some sort of social engineering on behalf of the scammers, but I doubt it’s much more than that.”

He welcomed the research which will help inform people to make the right decision.

“Anything that can increase knowledge in stopping these scams is to be welcomed. It’s only with the research and facts that people can make informed decisions,” Lyons said.

“For some people it’s the right time and place, the right pay-off, and they’re willing to take a risk, often thinking they’re smarter than the people at the other end.

“Nobody generally approaches you with a get-rich-quick scheme by e-mail when they don’t know you from a bar of soap.”– New Zealand Herald