National Day of Student Protest

Phishing for self-fulfilment

How the oldest form of digital scam has developed a human face to stay alive

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Our perception of spam is too often restricted to the urgent, overly punctuated emails that lurk in our Hotmail inboxes. Last weekend, though, I received a spam email that made me wish it wasn’t a spam email.

It wasn’t about how I can improve my sex life in ten easy steps, nor about how I am the lucky winner of a brand new iPad. It wasn’t even from the Crown Prince of Nigeria (although I, as much as anyone, would have loved to live out my own Princess Diaries saga). It read:

Hi there
My name is Jean Rafon, I’m from France.
Last week i bought an old book from street here in Paris and i found your email inside of it, i’m curious to know if this is a real person, and what relate you with this book…

Whilst an exponentially improved sex life, a new iPad and inheriting all the wealth of the Nigerian royal family are things that I would happily oblige to, Monsieur Jean Rafon offered something different. Something less superficial. Something… real. A connection of sorts.

Reflecting on the vast multitudes of spam that I have consumed in the past ten-or-so years as an active internet user, I wondered what had lead me to Jean. Or, indeed, what had led Jean to me.
In its nascence, spam and general internet scamming handed us everything on a silver platter. You are the lucky winner of a free iPhone! You have already won it! It is yours! No need to do anything more! Then came dubiously simple arcade games. Shoot three ducks, then you can win your free iPhone. You have to earn your prize here – a little bit more like real life. Surveys emerged soon after, as InstantSurveyRewards.com began to seek your unique and valuable thoughts and perceptions. Do you use a BluRay device? Are you employed? Are you happy? Let us know, and we’ll send over that shiny new iPhone.

"you have won a free laptop!" ad
Initially, it only took bright flashing colours and the promise that you were a site’s millionth visitor to make you believe in that shiny new piece of merchandise.

These earlier reuses cunningly seduced the greediest among us. But they didn’t necessarily feel authentic. A report from the 2007 International Conference on System Sciences suggests that “too-good-to-be-true” promises can lead consumers to reject claims. Likewise, over time, online scammers have rushed to alter their own formats.  They now attempt to convince us that their scams are real by reaffirming that, much like in reality, we must work to deserve our rewards.

"bash the teddy" web ad
Eventually, flash games like this were enough to make you think your pointing and clicking skills were developed enough to deserve an iPod classic

The same study notes that successful online scams undermine our use of logic, and make us believe things without us having really thought about them. They achieve this by appealing to what might trigger an emotional response – finally being loved and appreciated, or quitting your job to spend more time with your family.

"claim your new ipad" survey popup ad
More complex cons like “survey rewards websites” operated on two falsities: that data about whether or not you like vacuum cleaners is valuable enough to pay for a pop-up ad about it, and that giving simple information like this merited a free iPad in the mail.

Ah, so that explains Jean Rafon. The Scam Overlords at Scam HQ must have taken notes, deciding to follow the trend of targeting our fundamental desires – whether materialistic or carnal – in progressively credible ways to keep their scam economy running. Perhaps Jean is the brainchild of their introspective, Woody Allen-loving intern.  

In fact, similar appeals to the modern day human condition have probably appeared on your own sidebar.

You lock eyes with a thirty-something man in a business shirt. More specifically, you lock eyes with the low resolution image of a thirty-something man in a business shirt in the corner of your web browser. He’s smiling. You read the text below his picture: Do You Want To Earn $25 An Hour From Home? I Can Teach You How. Now you’re smiling, too.

Such monetary scams as this, promising nothing but a stable income earnt in complete comfort, tap into everyday emotional tensions – such as supporting the family, or finally paying off that debt – rather than the instant gratification that comes with winning a brand new iPhone.  Long gone are the days where you’d wish to be the lucky millionth visitor on a webpage to score an easy million dollars. As full-time graduate employment prospects continue to decline and as owning your own home becomes less and less feasible, the notion of earning a little bit more than the minimum wage appears more exciting (and more realistic) than coming across a ridiculous amount of cash by chance.

The ability of these scams to tap into desires such as financial security in an increasingly volatile economic climate can have unsavory consequences. If an individual is successfully duped, they risk the theft of their identity and personal funds.  In more extreme cases, they may be indicted for laundering money to criminal fraternities (i.e., the people most likely running the scam).

An overwhelming amount of scams and spam which now tug at our heartstrings are, nonetheless, working. A 2014 Google study suggests that online phishing scams can have success rates as high as 45%.

I’m no exception. I reply to Jean Rafon. Ardently, I tell him, “Yes, it’s me! We passed each other at the Gare du Nord station in the spring of 2013. Do you remember? I was in a green dress. Amongst the crowd, you were holding a tattered copy of Pablo Neruda’s love poems. I took a chance and slipped my Hotmail address in there… I knew you would find me one day, Jean.”

Jean didn’t respond, unfortunately. Maybe his ghostwriter freaked out at how seriously I wanted the real Jean in my life. Whoever is actually behind Jean’s mysterious persona is likely to have one of three strategies up their sleeve to reel in the electronic dough.

Ideally, I would have exchanged a number of emails with ‘Jean’ before he sent me a link designed to steal my login information, and from there, more of my personal details. Or, the same link would direct me to a malware-infested website. But the most dangerous possibility is that Jean Rafon is the pawn in a romance scam. He’d strike up a relationship with me, establish a sense of trust, then maybe urge me to provide my Western Union details so that he could buy a plane ticket to meet me in person, all the way from Paris. Then, ‘Jean’ would disappear — or yet, he would ask for even more money. Evidently, the risk here is not only financial – this scam is one of many that shrewdly and successfully baits our emotional vulnerabilities.

Sure, most online scams look like they might’ve been made with a mixture of stock images and Microsoft Paint. At any rate, though, they’re still expertly aimed at our deepest, innermost cravings. It wouldn’t be surprising to soon see a pop-up ad in the near future proclaiming: ‘I Clicked Here And I Got A University Degree For Under 100k’, or ‘Congratulations! Your BA qualifies you for a regular, entry level job! Click here to apply!’ Scams are — quite literally — a criminal attack on the desires of the human psyche. Desires which, at the end of the day, we can’t ‘ad-block’.

Additional reporting by Izabella Antoniou

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