Why is spam illiterate?

I GET A LOT OF SPAM. You probably get a lot of spam. Email in-boxes around the world are overflowing with spam. But is it all as slapdash and rushed as it seems at first glance?

Here’s an email I was sent, reproduced exactly as I received it:

From: Henrietta Frazier
To: Steve Caplin
Payment announcement #103578

Good morning!

You has the fines for sales tax. Amount: $220.23

===Detailed notification is in the attached ZIP-archive===

You gotta verify document before: April 11th 2014. Differently you’ll get lawsuit.

Cordially yours,
Head of Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. Henrietta Frazier
+1 (561) 116-71-88

* Please do not reply to this email. Your response will not be received. Please visit our website to contact us.


At first glance it seems stupid, cackhanded, bound to fail. It’s obviously illiterate. Who would fall for such an incompetent message? No-one with a modicum of intelligence could possibly be taken in by it.

And that’s precisely the point. If you have enough education to spot the many grammatical errors, then you’re no good to the spammers. The purpose of the wording is precisely to weed out no-hope punters like you.

Spammers are very busy people. They have to write and arrange for the sending of hundreds of thousands of emails, and presumably they have to deal with the dozens or perhaps hundreds of replies they get. The very last thing they want is some smartass, over-educated potential mark to start getting engaged with them.

Let’s imagine this email had been more grammatically crafted, and written in formal bureaucratic English. They may well have got many more responses. If you happened to live in Pennsylvania, it might just be enough to make you wonder if you had inadvertently committed some financial transgression.

But sooner or later an intelligent reader would have realised that the whole thing was a scam, that they were being had. It might take a few more email exchanges, but soon enough alarm bells would start ringing and the emails from the spammers would go unanswered.

So what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is that the spammers don’t want to be bothered following email trails that don’t lead anywhere. Essentially, they don’t want people like you and me wasting their time. They make their dubious living from the ill-educated, gullible minority. If you’re one of those who see through the deception straight away, then you automatically rule yourself out of the running. Graduates and A-level students need not apply.

Far from being ineptly worded, the email has been carefully calculated to rope on only the target audience, and no-one else. If you really want to stick it to the spammers, reply to their emails and waste their time. If you can be bothered.

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