Marketing Lessons from Nigerian Scammers


Alleged 419 scammerAs marketers, we spend a lot of time crafting our pitches – emails, sales letters, print ads, etc. – to make our products seem as desirable as possible. We strive for convincing copy that doesn’t raise suspicion in the mind of the reader, and seeks to quell any fears or objections. But, are there some situations where turning off some prospects can work to the marketer’s benefit? Microsoft researcher and cybercrime expert Cormac Herley says “yes.”

Herley looked at the behavior of the scam artists who send out mass emails promising the recipient a financial windfall if they just provide a little help to the sender. You know the kind of email I’m talking about – “My uncle was the oil minister of Nigeria and deposited $50 million in a U.S. bank account. Because of government controls in Nigeria, I can’t access the account. But, if you help, I’ll give you half of the money we recover.” These emails, most commonly dubbed “Nigerian scams” or “419 scams,” are invariably outlandish – huge sums of money and a goofy, implausible story.

Often, despite the association of email scams with Nigerian perpetrators, the communications frequently reference Nigeria as the location of the dead oil minister, deposed king, etc. In Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They are From Nigeria? Herley summarizes the math and shows that referencing Nigeria in the hard-to-believe story actually helps the scammers.

The “Clueless” Filter

Here’s why: when you get one of these emails, you are likely thinking, “You’d have to be a clueless idiot to think the nephew of a dead general is going to share $30 million with you just for making a trip to the bank.” If a 419 scammer could read your thoughts and reply in business terms, he would likely say, “Exactly! That’s our target market!”

Shrinking the Sales Funnel

For the scammers to make money, they will ultimately have to convince their targets to wire them money and perhaps even travel to Africa. Needless to say, these are steps that few prospects will find appealing. Even gullible targets will get suspicious as the demands increase, and most will drop out of the process. And each prospect requires individual attention in the form of emails, replies, phone calls, etc. (Off topic: do you suppose these scammers use CRM software to keep track of all their prospects and where they are in the “closing” process?)

This labor-intensive process means that if more potential skeptics are knocked out of the conversion funnel at the outset, the density of potential victims goes up in the smaller pool of prospects. The scammer wastes less time and can convert more victims to maximize profit. Even if a few good prospects are lost by by using less plausible pitch, the higher density of victims in the final pool makes the entire process more profitable. As Herley notes,

By sending an email 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 favor.

Who Cares? I’m Not a Scammer!

What does this have to do with the marketing that most of us do? Well, at least for those marketers that have costs associated with a sales process, like followup phone calls or in-person visits to inquiries, casting a wide net with the advertising process may lead to inefficiencies downstream.

Shrink Your Funnel?

Smart marketers understand the costs at each stage of their process, and calculate the cost per conversion for each source. A few things you can do:

  • Be sure you know how profitable the leads are from each source.
  • Include all costs in your calculations – advertising, cost to qualify, cost of the sales process, etc.
  • Run the numbers to see if you can change your front end marketing to produce fewer prospects that, on average, will convert better.

The perpetrators of scams generally can’t sustain losses for very long. They have no choice but to squeeze inefficiency out of their system. We may despise the scammers’ methods, objectives, and results, but the need to avoid filling the conversion funnel with leads that won’t convert is one lesson we can learn from them.

[I should point out that the vast majority of Nigerian people, whether at home or abroad, are honest and hard-working. Why a few people from that country came to dominate this kind of scam, I’m unable to say. To learn more about 419 scams and to see how creative people have worked to scam the scammers into spending their own money and wasting time doing silly things, check out The exchanges are often hilarious! Photo via]

  1. shoppernews says


    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing.

    Maybe the same concept applies to credit offers without asking for any securities or background check.

    Thanks for sharing!



    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good example, Johannes. If your loan offer, for example, converts best for customers with strong credit, adjusting the ads to dissuade those with bad credit from responding will reduce the response rate but reduce the expense of qualifying and rejecting bad prospects.


  2. K Raghunathan says

    Amazing way of looking at it!

  3. Joseph Willis Jr. says

    Great Article. I read a post a while ago about a guy who scammed a scammer. He got him back really well. He sent him broken and old laptops and convinced the scammer to make commercials for him. The whole thing turned into a hilarious website called Anus(instead of ASUS) Laptops.

    A must see and read post!!!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There are some funny examples at the site I linked to above, too. In one case, the scammer was apparently tricked into getting a large tattoo in order to collect some money. In another case, the scammer hand copied and scanned hundreds of pages from Harry Potter. It’s fun to see the tables turned in this way.


  4. alan says

    hmmm. but I’m thinking that if the scammers referenced, say, Ethiopia instead of Nigeria, but market to the same audience, that they would get all the clueless ones responding positively to Nigeria AND the borderline-clueless that would, after much consternation, decide not to respond to Nigeria because somewhere in the back of their minds, “Nigeria” may cause them pause…but “Ethiopia” has no associated negative intuition.

  5. Jake @ idahorealestate says

    Wonderful article! Extravagant way to look at things. To be a spammer and be good at it you have very sophisticated in what you’re doing. Thanks for the post~

  6. Jules Brown says

    Great article!

    There’s also another (potentially much more important) benefit than process cost saving. If you write for your target audience and them alone – your communications will be more effective than if you take a ‘catch all’ approach.

    If the 419 scammers used emails that tried to appeal as broadly as possible, their communications would become so insipid as to lose the attention of a large proportion of their ‘clueless idiots.’

    The same can be said for all marketing communications. In trying to appeal to everyone, you can end up appealing to no one.

  7. Lydia Sugarman says

    This is a scary proposition for many marketing and sales departments. Having lots and lots of contacts in a big database is like a security blanket that is reassuring as well as something to hide behind. The only problem is that doesn’t work anymore with all the sophisticated tools for tracking and measurement of everything. It’s impossible to fool *anyone” with dead leads. So, clean house and get busy nurturing quality, qualified leads.

    I’ve never been a high volume sales person except when it comes to closing. That’s where it matters!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s true, Lydia. A lot depends on costs – if you can nurture and qualify a lead at very low cost, e.g., electronically with automation, then a shotgun approach to fill the pipeline may make sense. Usually, though, the qualification process does require resources.


  8. John @ Machine Parts says

    I actually just read about a corporation doing things like this door to door. A new energy provider for an entire city was approved and to try and get a piece of the action, a different energy supplier went door to door signing people up for their service instead. Stating, “The city just approved the service provider change for everyone and we want to make sure your cost is adjusted accordingly when you switch. You will save $X.XX when you switch. Sign here to authorize the change over in advance.” I spoke with one of these agents myself and as an internet skeptic, I immediately called my service provider. They told me to close the door and say no thank you. We were given a letter issued by the police a few days later to call them if an agent came to their door.

  9. Chester Butler says

    Great article and a valuable lesson..

  10. Webáruház Készítés says

    Great article, thank you 🙂

    Lydia is right, it is very scary 🙁

  11. Venizz Smith says

    I, too, have received tons of emails like that. They all talk about huge amount of money, but I am already aware of it. Good info by the way. Thanks for sharing it.

  12. Gareth Morgan says

    What’s the deal with those scammers that email you and say they have got millions in the bank but need your help in obtaining it blah blah blah? I never read the whole message but truly wonder how anybody would fall for this crap!!!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Well, Gareth, that’s the point. People who view it as a scam right away are knocked out of the conversion funnel, and only the most oblivious and gullible remain.


  13. Gareth Morgan says

    I find it hard to believe anybody would seriously fall for it! Do you know of anybody personally and if so, what happened to them?

  14. craig says

    A great article. I cant beleive people will still fall for it though. I do still get a lot of emails like this in my spam folder but the switch seems to have gone over to Iraq and libya with Gadaffi`s and Hussains Lawyers wanting to share money with me….

  15. david dawson says

    You know we once had an enquiry from someone who was based in the USA. and wanted to pay for a large order on credit card. With a UK home address that was shipping to a company in nigeria.

    Alarm bells were ringing from the offset. But we took a BACS payment rather than a credit card and nothing was untoward. That was 2 years ago and still remains our largest order ever for umbrellas.

    So even though alarms bells ring when you hear the word “nigeria” it’s not always the case.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Glad that one worked out, David! Multiple red flags on that order for sure, you are a braver man than I!

  16. tim @ San Antonio Texas says

    You’ve answered a question I have had for a long time. Why do they make these scams so obvious. It’s hard to believe there are so many people out there that can be taken in by this. The whole time I just thought these were the scammers that were horrible at it. Great post.

  17. Adam says

    Filtering is something I had not effectively considered. You do not have to do it based on gullability, but filtering for the traits of the right client is something that will help me with targeting our clients more effectively.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.