The language of a scam

My mother died about five years ago.    Today, I received an e-mail that was not exactly from the grave, but in fact was to the grave, although the e-mail address was mine.    She had received some similarly slimy paper letters while alive.   Such letters are designed to take advantage of the vulnerable, and they work well.  We were relatively lucky in that respect: she sent off $10 here and $20 there to the vampires who write these letters, but I’ve met people whose mothers sent away every last penny.

It would be a boon to society if computational linguists could write a filter to detect such letters.   Something beyond the standard naive Bayesian filters that work by picking up messages with unusual numbers of suspicious words.    Something that detects the hig level pattern of tugging at the heart-strings, of pretending to be a woefully abused heroic fighter.  Pretending to be a personal friend.   Pretending to be considerate “…I didn’t want to worry you…”

Although, really, much of the problem is that she didn’t have much to do or anyone to do it with.  These letters were at least moderately important for her, because she didn’t get enough real human contact.   When you have not much human contact, even false humanity from people who don’t mean you well may be important…

I attach the letter, as a sample.  I have taken the liberty of making it generic, replacing topical nouns with generic nouns like EVIL, GOOD, YEAR, DAY, PLACE.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were very common patterns of generic words in these letters.

Letters like these are highly optimized tools.  They are doubtless developed by an evolutionary process that major corporations and research labs would envy.  Some scammer takes a letter that already works well  (where does he get it?   Probably from his mother’s mailbox…).  He/she changes it a little and mails it out.   If the new version works well it gets used more and more.  If it doesn’t bring in the cash, it is dropped and a new version is developed.

These letters play the role of animals.   They evolve because the breed (with the help of the scammer), and the successful progeny multiply, and the unsuccessful progeny hit the wastebasket.  We are seeing language evolution in action here.


It’s hard to write you this.

My office is in trouble. And I need your help. I have been fighting overtime against EVIL.  And I am sure that I am doing what is right.

It is our duty…

It seems some people want to just give up. And with our failing economy, many of my best supporters haven’t been able to help like they used to…

In fact, money is so tight here that I have had to scale back important GOOD campaigns. And now, the Board of Directors is considering freezing my activities.

…I need you to please make a one-time emergency contribution of MONEY or more to GOOD by clicking here.

Critical petition drives, grassroots lobbying campaigns, and citizen outreach programs may be closed down.

Life here in CAPITOL has been EVIL for me…

I put off sending you this email for a while because I didn’t want to worry you.  You see, in the past I’ve gotten death threats and I never took them lightly. But when they went beyond threatening and actually tried to kill me, it’s a whole different story.

There’s more my friend…  Strangers used follow my family around town…  Idling cars sat across the street at all hours of the night…the threatening phone calls and the outrageous lies… oh, it was endless…

I’ve taken precautions to protect my family. Some things I’ve told you about, but some things I must keep confidential or they’d be in more peril.

I have fought on… and my family is safe now. But I desperately need your help right now.

Please don’t let me down.

Fighting against EVIL has put my office tens of thousands of dollars over budget. And at the same time, it’s getting harder and harder to raise the money to keep our campaigns going.

And it’s up to you and me alone to stand against EVIL Yet, donations to my office are not keeping up and now I am in a dilemma like I’ve never been in before.

You see, my office does not receive any tax funds for its important campaigns. And while EVIL is GETTING MONEY VIA EVIL MEANS, I raise every dime of my office’s budget from concerned citizens like you.

I can’t fight on without your help. Right now, at what may be a turning point in our fight against the forces of evil, I don’t have the funds to fight on.

My friend, I need to count on you. I absolutely must raise over MONEY in the next 25 days to pay past bills and keep programs going.

XXXXXXX X., I need to be able to count on you for a special gift of MONEY or more. Please click here to donate.

If am not able to raise the money, I don’t know what I will do. I don’t know how I can keep fighting.

EVIL have gone into overdrive to pass their EVIL agenda. If GOOD falters now, EVIL may get everything they want.  You see, it really is you and me, and the other GOOD supporters that are standing in their way.

When I sat down to write this email, I thought back to all we have accomplished. I remember when I first packed up my car and drove down to CAPITOL from CITY.

The President of GOOD had offered me a position as the full time Executive Director of this organization. It was a dream come true. I had the opportunity to lead one of the most influential organizations in the country.

I resigned my IMPORTANT JOB, I packed my few belongings into my yellow CAR, and I drove to CAPITOL.

And one of the things I was overwhelmed by during those golden days was the outpouring of support from people all across this great nation.

You and I and thousands of other GOOD PEOPLE stood up to be counted. We told the EVIL we didn’t care what they thought anymore… We would fight for what is right. And we did, my friend.

Who could forget the shocked look on EVIL’s face when I showed up at the CAPITOL with hundreds of GOOD PEOPLE to support GOOD. EVIL said that PEOPLE opposed GOOD. So I found PEOPLE to come to the White House to testify in favor of GOOD… And we won

…And remember back in YEAR when the first horrible EVIL was introduced? We stopped it dead in its tracks… (I only wish it was so easy to stop it now. It has cost me over half a million dollars to keep it from coming to a vote this year.)

…And on DAY as members of EVIL planned to attack GOOD, my supporters came through and formed human barricades to keep EVIL out of the PLACE (one man drove up on the sidewalk to try to kill me during that confrontation)…

Working together, we were able to be such a strong force in GOVERNMENT.

EVIL has come to despise me. But my father always told me that you can judge a man by his enemies. And I have these enemies because of our fight. Because for NUMBER great years, you and I have held these people accountable for their actions

I need your help again right now. Please send an urgent gift of MONEY or whatever you can afford by clicking here.

Because I can’t go on fighting against EVIL if I do not raise the money to pay the bills.  I shudder to think of what will happen if EVIL goes unchecked

EVIL will introduce a sick and disgusting agenda:
— EVIL #1
— EVIL #2
— EVIL #3

GOVERNMENT will be looking to pass EVIL as soon as EVENT. They have been eager to pass a EVIL bill before EVENT.

This will force GOOD to do EVIL… and make you and me criminals for standing up to oppose the EVIL agenda.

The truth is we are in a fight for the very future of our children. And for our future.

Together, you and I have kept the evil “EVIL Bill” from becoming law…

You and I got rid of the wicked EVIL after we caught him DOING EVIL… We fought side by side to keep GOOD open. And we won. Then we stopped EVIL.

But these last few years have been the hardest ever.

EVIL have infiltrated even GOOD. Tricking good GOOD PEOPLE into accepting the “EVIL Bill” as a “political necessity” compromise…

The EVIL Bill is on the fast track to passage in the rush to “do something” about UNIMPORTANT PROBLEM.

And, my friend, I discovered the inner sanctum of the EVIL Conspiracy…

Just outside of CAPITOL, a fanatical gang of pushy EVIL workers have a secret warehouse where they have been generating hundreds of thousands of petitions. When I first saw it, I was convinced that we could never stop the “EVIL Bill” from becoming LAW.

And, once again, you came through.

My friends and supporters all across the Country signed petitions and helped fight EVIL

And I just can’t fight on without your help. Before I can do anything else, I must pay the bills my office owes.

You stand with me don’t you my friend?

If you will continue to stand with me, I know we can beat them again.

Please send a generous contribution to help my GOOD campaigns.

XXXXX X., please send an emergency contribution of MONEY or more today. And if MONEY is simply too much right now, please send something. Click here to donate now.

I would not be human if I didn’t tell you that sometimes I cry from all the pain.

But the support you have given me keeps me in this fight… a fight that does make a difference for GOOD and our values.

Supporters like you and other GOOD Americans have joined me and given me so much encouragement.

… My friend, … I have told you everything about what we are up against and what is needed to stop this evil.

And GOOD keeps on bringing petitions, visiting GOVERNMENT.

I am not stopping my daily and nightly efforts to speak out. Believe me, continuing this fight against EVIL isn’t easy for NAME or me. … And we will make the sacrifices. NAME backs me all the way …

That’s why they viciously attack us when no one else in CAPITOL is attacked like NAME and I are.

It outrages me… sickens me… that there are people like the EVIL who would go after my family … like this.

As NAME has said over and over to me, “You and I must be doing something right if they would come after me and our kids.”

Now, I need to ask you to make a sacrifice also. One that may seem too big: Please send GOOD a one-time emergency contribution today.

I know I’m asking for a lot and I hope you know it’s not easy asking for it. You have been so generous to the causes we believe in. If I could go without ever asking you for money again, believe me, I would.

But you and I both know better than that.

It’s expensive to run national campaigns like these. And my office has never received taxpayer funds for its GOOD campaigns. I need to count on my friends and supporters all across NATION.

And right now, I need to count on you.

Please click here to send a one-time donation of as much as you can afford. I’m sure you have a lot of people asking you for help. I know that some days it seems like my mailbox will overflow with letters from deserving organizations asking for needed funds.

And I’m sure that, just like NAME and me, you have given a lot of money to fight for GOOD in NATION. But this is so important. We must fight on. I must have your support.

In coming days, you and I will have to redouble our efforts against EVIL.

With its strangle-hold on GOVERNMENT and with EVIL ruling CAPITOL, EVIL is poised to shove its evil EVIL ADJECTIVE legislation down the throats of the GOOD PEOPLE.

This year may be a turning point for this country. This nation’s IMPORTANT THING may be decided over the next few months and we must be ready to defend GOOD.

But first we have to pay our bills. That’s only fair.

And I need your help, my friend. You see, I’m counting on you to help me DO GOOD.

So I need to ask you again, please click here to send a one-time gift of whatever you can afford today. I’m not saying I won’t ask again. I’ve never been one to make promises I can’t keep.

But if you can help me today by letting me know you are still with me, it will mean that we can continue to fight. And that we can win.

It will mean that you and I can stop EVIL from making tremendous gains in this GOVERNMENT.

It’s up to you.

Every day this world becomes less safe for GOOD, every day EVIL gains more control.

I cannot continue this fight without your help. Please send your donation today.


P.S. I will watch for your response. It is so important that you help today. This is a life-and-death struggle, and there can be no compromise with these political monsters.

You and I face EVIL pushing to give EVIL everything on their wish list: EVIL.

Our important work must go on. The GOVERNMENT could vote any day to pass EVIL.

I must have this debt paid and be ready to fight. Please click here to donate today. I ask you to … consider a one-time contribution of MONEY. That’s a lot to ask, but this is critical.