Dubious statistic of the day, Nigerian email edition

By Felix Salmon
May 4, 2009

How much do Nigerian email scammers make? According to Jeffrey Robinson, it’s the kind of money which would make a CEO blush:

Investigators in the U.K. who are tracking him note that, since Dec. 1, 2008, Macjon has targeted 13.5 million Americans with the work-at-home e-mail scam. Investigators estimate his success rate at around 0.1%. That’s 13,500 victims from whom he’s stolen as much as $40.5 million.

That’s $40.5 million in 150 days, which works out at about $100 million a year. Nice! But also complete bullshit.

Macjon’s scam is highly elaborate. All such scams involve a long series of emails going back and forth to set things up; this one culminates in forged checks being mailed to the mark’s house to be deposited into his bank account. And Robinson reckons that Macjon is doing this at a rate of 630 people a week? Of course he doesn’t really think that, he’s just happy to pull a random 0.1% number out of thin air and extrapolate it into some multi-million-dollar headline figure.

This is a Barron’s article, not a scholarly paper, so I’m not asking Robinson to provide footnotes. But I am saying that the 0.1% figure doesn’t pass the smell test, and that if Robinson had bothered to ask where it came from, he probably would have been very surprised at how sketchy it really is. Frankly, I don’t have much faith in the “13.5 million” number either, or, for that matter, the implication that the average mark has lost $3,000.

It would be nice, just for once, for dubious numbers such as these to come with some kind of warning sticker attached. But journalists are always loathe to admit that they don’t know everything, and as a result we get ludicrous results like Nigerian email scammers making $100 million a year each. Depressing.

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