July 17, 2023

Spam, Scams, and Social Norms

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

There’s really no such thing as good spam. I’m talking about the email variety of spam, not the canned pork from which unsolicited emails got their name (see this Monty Python sketch for its origin). Emails claiming to have money waiting for us, threatening us if emails go unanswered, or promoting questionable products are annoying and typically easy to spot. So easy that email platforms often identify it before we even see it.

Spam is annoying, but it’s also sociological.

Spam teaches us about social norms, and about the importance of power and status. The spams in my junk email folder are easy to spot because they violate the expected patterns of a typical email:
  1. A name is often the subject in an attempt to draw attention to an allegedly important message
  2. The name is often supposedly a powerful person (the director of the FBI, the Federal Reserve chair, the Postmaster General, or a billionaire, for example). Power can be situational; Jonathan Wynn described in this post how graduate students have received emails from people impersonating him, the department chair, and asking for help.
  3. The powerful person is writing about trivial matter. For instance, the USPS Postmaster General would not know, nor is it part of the job description, that I have a package waiting for me. If for some reason a powerful person did actually want to reach me, chances are great that an assistant would do that for them.
  4. The term “Dear” is used not as salutation, but as a term of endearment. A 2012 opinion piece on cnn.com asked “Is ‘Dear’ Dead?” as a salutation (too formal), and it is often considered condescending or patronizing to use with a stranger. At best, it is a dated term to be used with loved ones, not strangers.
  5. The stranger is urgently seeking your “help” or to give you something in exchange for information (like your bank account number).

Scammers try and work the phones, too, although voice providers sometimes identify “spam calls” on caller id, and many people no longer answer the phone if they don’t recognize the phone number.

A viral video (with more than 14 million views) features a tax attorney who plays along with a scammer claiming to be an IRS agent for much of the 14-minute video before going on the attack: the “agent” requests payment in the form of a gift card, had a bogus agent id, and couldn’t answer basic questions about his alleged hometown. Likewise, Scammer Payback, a YouTube channel, tracks down and hacks call center scammers. We get to listen as the tables are turned and the would-be scammers are on the defense. The scam falls apart when they become hostile and flustered.

But some kinds of scams are more sophisticated, also drawing on social norms and the importance of power and status.

NPR recently reported on a scam that started with a phone call allegedly from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB), claiming to have a warrant for the recipient’s arrest. The scammer used the name of a real agent and was able to “spoof” the actual CPB phone number. So when the victim searched the information, it appeared to be legitimate.

As NPR described:

The scam is known as an imposter scam and is the top fraud in the U.S. right now. It involves the perpetrator impersonating an authority figure and using scare tactics to reel in victims. While these scams have been around forever, they've become more believable because con artists use real names of law enforcement officers that show up with caller ID from an actual office and even local accents.

The Federal Trade Commission says nearly 200,000 people have been targeted this year alone. And last year, people lost a total of $2.6 billion to imposter scams.

This scam rests on creating a sense of urgency by impersonating someone in law enforcement, drawing on the power held within government agencies, and the powerlessness people may feel in dealing with them. The scam described above involved impersonating multiple government agencies, including the victim’s local police department, adding to the feeling of legitimacy.

We’d all like to think we wouldn’t fall for scams, wouldn’t open spam emails, and ignore calls from people we don’t know. But as technology allows scammers to use the identities and contact information from people in positions of legitimate authority, it might not be so easy to resist. Especially as artificial intelligence enables people to clone voices, it might be easier to fall prey to scams.

What other sociological lessons do we learn from spam and scams?


This site is quite enjoyable to me. It's an instructive subject. It really helps in the problem-solving process for me.

Very educative. Thanks

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