Because it works

by Stephen Tall on December 11, 2006

Like most people with a public e-mail address, I get a fair amount of spam. It’s irritating, but there are harder things in life than pressing delete.

What has taxed me more is trying to work out what the point of spam is. Fair enough if it’s some anarchist attempt to bring down modern society by clogging our communication systems. I can at least understand the rationale of such behaviour.

But do people who send me an e-mail like this one (for the full effect, click on the pic) really expect me to think:

‘That looks like a bona fide investment opportunity, and no mistake. And so professionally laid out as well. To hell with that ISA, this will make my fortune.’

Apparently, though, I should wonder no more. The reason e-mail spam exists is that it works.

This, at least, is the conclusion reached by two university researchers, quoted in yesterdays New York Times:

… “pump and dump” stock schemes are exploding on the Web. The antispam firm Postini said that unsolicited messages accounted for 93 percent of all e-mail in November — a record — and spammers are always finding ways to elude spam filters.

Spammers seem to prefer stock scams now, since they require no links to Web sites — just a message hyping an obscure stock.

An Oxford University professor, Jonathan Zittrain, and a Purdue University assistant professor, Laura Frieder, recently studied such schemes and reached a surprising conclusion: they work. Spammers often make a 5 to 6 percent return in just days. The suckers who buy the stock — and some inevitably do — lose 7 percent of their investment.

Even after polishing all my sympathetic sensory cells I find it hard to shed too many tears for those hoping to make a quick buck and falling for such a scam.

Reminded me of Jim Gower’s definition of appropriate government intervention, quoted approvingly by Nigel Lawson in the FT a few weeks ago:

[Prof Gower] wisely observed that the level of supervision should not “seek to achieve the impossible task of protecting fools from their own folly”, but should rather “be no greater than is necessary to protect reasonable people from being made fools of”.