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Why scams work...

Seth Godin has a blog worth reading if you like my style of writing. He's opinionated. I'm opinionated. He's right. I'm right. He talks about business. I talk about software development. He gets to the point. I blab like a journalist. Or an idiot. Pick one.

Anyway, a recent article on his blog caught my eye:

In the article (albeit very short), Seth admits having no clue why mail scams work. Unfortunately, I know exactly why they work. Here's the lowdown:

Once upon a time a relative of mine received some junk mail. Now this relative was the type of person who had to have two of everything. This sort of behavior is also known as the packrat mentality. It is important to note that if someone who has packrat mentality can't immediately locate at least two items, they will buy another one just to be sure.

Now this particular relative was also an elderly person. It is important to note that as a person gets older, certain behaviors exhibited earlier in life become much more prominent. This is particularly dangerous for those with packrat mentality. They will continue packing more stuff in their basement, the hallways, the kitchen, and the bathroom until the place is bursting at the seams.

Now remember that this story started with this individual receiving a piece of junk mail. So now this individual opens the junk mail and sees that it is for an item they do not have. If you saw the checkbook/credit card coming out, you are absolutely right.

By the time someone else in my family noticed what was going on, this individual had purchased hundreds of "subscriptions" to coin collections, stamp collections, books on birds and other animals, magazines, and general stuff.

What the kicker was the "donations". You and I receive junk mail every day asking to send money to this or that organization. This individual actually sent money to them without a second thought. It was later determined that some of these organizations are actually illegal (more on this later).

That's not the end of the story. The subscriptions were all cancelled over the next year. But the amazing thing was that the junk mail simply kept coming. And coming. And coming. The mailbox was stuffed to the gills. Every. Single. Day.

There is a junk mailing list that is shared among junk mailers called the "suckers list" (it is literally called that). The people on this special list are those who will subscribe to or send money in for anything and everything. Many of these people are individuals like the one I just described - some people collect cats, others send money to everyone who asks for it. Once on the suckers list, you can never get off...and if you move, people will make serious attempts to hunt you down.

Basically, this individual got off the suckers list by disappearing from existence. This was done by careful manipulation of who could contact this person and how the contact occurred. The mail was monitored, junk mail eliminated by hand, and the residence being lived in evacuated. This was a perfectly legal activity by the use of something called Power of Attorney. Power of Attorney allows another individual to do very specific things on behalf of another. It can be as specific or as broad as the individual granting the power wants. From what I understand, this transfer of power (a very broad transfer - someone else controls this individual's checkbook and bank account now) and careful manipulation are the only things that have slowed the junk mail to the standard trickle you and I receive. Disappearing from existence or dying are the only legitimate ways to get off the suckers list.

During this process three additional discoveries were made:

1) There are organizations out there that will send two requests for money in the same week. Amazingly, the people on the suckers list will fall for the trick and send money twice. To the same organization. Using the same letter. It really happens.

You can close the open jaw because #2 will break it if it is even partially open.

2) Non-profit organizations are created for some worthy and humanly-important cause. During the process, it was discovered that there are "non-profit" organizations out there with 90% administrative overhead. Here's how it works: The organization sends out a mailing asking for money for the starving children in [Foreign country goes here]. They use medium-grade to high-quality paper to increase costs and might even put color images of a starving child with big puffy eyes and the classic "sad-puppy-dog-face-you-can't-refuse" on it. They get a professional letter writer to do the letter to make it look really good and then send it out. The owner of the organization pockets $100,000 a year (minus costs of the writer), $10,000 goes to the starving children, and the rest goes into the pot for the following year's mailing. The process repeats. This really happens.

3) The last discovery is that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is always on the lookout for these institutions, but they spring up faster than the DOJ can shut them down. I don't know what the point is where these things become illegal, but, IIRC, it is something like 25% administrative overhead is pushing the organization's luck. Obviously, when these organizations are caught and shut down, the people involved go to prison for a few years (some get out and repeat the process). However, the damage will have already been done - a bunch of suckers will have sent their money to an individual and won't see it ever again.

E-mail is effectively 'suckers list' paradise. E-mail is free (relatively speaking). Sending snail-mail is not. People receive spam because there are so many suckers out there. If the adage "A sucker is born every minute" applies to snail-mail, then "A sucker is born every 15 seconds" applies to e-mail. Instead of weeding out just the suckers, spammers just send mail to everyone because it is too much work to weed out just the suckers. The logic then goes that people besides the usual suckers will want the target product. So, in a spammer's eyes, there are more suckers to be had by not focusing on just the known suckers.

Spam would be incredibly unsuccessful if there weren't suckers. However, there are. So the rest of us get spam.

Here's a tip on how to NOT be a sucker:

Do your homework before spending money. A little time spent up front doing a few Google searches can save you infinite headaches in the long run. So, say you want to have a word processor and a spreadsheet and a number of other standard business tools. Your first thought is "Microsoft Office". Why? The answer is simple: You've seen and been affected by Microsoft's marketing engine. If you buy Office because you have been marketed to, you are a sucker.

If, however, you search and try a half dozen different Office-like suites out there and determine that Microsoft Office is still the way to go, then you are NOT a sucker. Good research and smart decisions are the difference between being a sucker and not being one.

Now, I don't offer an Office-like suite, but I do have several interesting software products worth looking at, plus a well-written e-book worth reading:

If you don't find the tool you "need" on my site (or find it on other sites like, feel free to send your ideas to me. I'm always on the lookout for nifty ideas for applications. Of course, I tend to develop software I need because I need it. Then again, I sometimes develop an application someone else needs because I need to stay on my toes with fresh ideas.