Baba Bengali and Nigerian Scamsters: How becoming a False Positive helped!

People who have traveled by local train in Mumbai would be familiar with an advertisement by ‘Baba Bengali’ stuck in the compartments. It used to have claims like ‘solve all your problems in 11 days’ or ‘money problem? no luck in job? marital problems? get guaranteed solution in 3 hours’ or similar exaggerated claims.

Baba BangaliI always used to wonder who ever believed those outrageous claims made in those ads. Apparently, ‘Baba Bengali’ became a successful scam business and almost a pseudonym for ‘tantric’ thugs. So much so that there were many newer entrants into this ‘business’.

The surprising factor was that they adopted some modified version of Baba Bengali as their name (presumably you cannot copyright scam names!). So now you had a ‘Baba Raza Bengali’, a ‘Baba Guru Bengali’, a ‘Baba Khalid Bengali’ and perhaps a few more.

Why did they do that? And how did people – most of whom knew by then that Baba Bengali stood for scammers – still fall prey to those almost hilarious ads? I got the answer to that question when I went through a recent research paper by Microsoft titled ‘Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are from Nigeria?’ You can check out the detailed paper here.

There is a lot of mathematical modeling done there, but the crux of the matter is the cost of false positives vis-a-vis the benefits from true positives – specially in target markets where the victim density is low. In simpler terms, how does a scammer increase ultimate conversion rates and its benefits without increasing costs of handling respondents that don’t convert?

Like any marketing activity, there is a cost associated even with scam. But as scamsters like ‘Baba Bengali’ or ‘Nigerian person asking to deposit money’ or ‘You just won a UK Lottery’ started adopting online methods of marketing, the costs of delivering their message kept reducing – so they could reach a large potential audience at zero or very low cost.

But while their cost of message delivery reduced drastically, their potential problems also increased. Because a lot of people started responding to their ads.

Now, for a traditional marketer whose costs begin much earlier, and whose campaign ends with response rate, that would not be a problem. But for a scamster, the costs begin only when someone responds. Too many responses that don’t convert is a problem, because there is a cost associated with handling people who respond but eventually back out because of some reason. They are unprofitable for the perpetrators.

Additionally, more the number of people who respond and back out, more are the chances of the scam getting leaked and the risk for the scamster getting caught.

That is the reason the Nigerian emails or the UK Lottery SMS or the Baba Bengali content is what it is. It is outrageous, hilarious and unbelievable for most of us. Most of us are likely to ignore it. Nobody but the most gullible will respond to them.

And as Microsoft found in its research, ‘Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify.’ That is the target market for them.

It is not meant to attract but repel most of us. This strategy is deliberately designed to target accurately only those most likely to convert, and hence, prevent false positives.

Now this insight and the realization that false positives are a problem for scamsters actually helped me get rid of some ‘personal loan’ spam recently.

I used to repeatedly get those calls stating that I will get loans and credit cards without documents, with amazing credit limits and outstanding free gifts. Some of those calls almost started feeling like the Baba Bengali or Nigerian scam. I decided to ‘become a false positive.’

Earlier I used to get irritated on receiving these calls, but they never stopped. Almost as if the caller expected my irritation. But a few weeks back, I actually told them that I had heard a lot about their wonderful product and I was highly interested. The caller sounded positively surprised by that. I gave her false details on where to come and meet me.

I gave them directions on how to reach an address that I did not stay at. When they got close to that address, I called them to say I am sorry I am not at home due to something urgent, but am interested so would love if they can reschedule the appointment. After 2-3 such iterations, I met them, told them to meet me again for next steps as I would like to know more about the product.

Somewhere after this, the caller probably realized that I was a ‘false positive’.

Not only has she stopped calling me, but I think I have got off a couple of other calling lists as well. I am hoping that all personal finance scamsters use similar target (or victim?) lists. My behaviour, I am hopeful, gets me off all those lists. I will thank Microsoft for it all my life.

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