Monday, August 29, 2011

Scam, Trade, Charity and Advertising Strategies

I was browsing my spam folder this morning looking at all the fascinating opportunities that had luckily found their way to my door and started trying to categorize the social engineering strategies that were in play.

1. Curious Cat Strategy.

Mail contains only a weblink with no contextual information (unless you look at the "from" field).  Often even the link itself is not interestingly named and does not contain any meaningful keywords.  I estimate that this would capture only the completely ignorant or the terminally curious.

2. Fear Me Stategy

The mail contains some threat to the user.  Usually either their email account or their bank account is going to be closed/suspended/locked etc unless they do something stupid like send their details to some foreign country.  This can only work on people who are poorly informed or are not willing to call the senders bluff.  This could be due to stress, lack of capacity, etc.  Really only exploiting the vulnerable.

3.  Lets work together strategy

These mails basically present an opportunity that could have something in it for both the sender and the receiver if only the receiver will do something.  Nigerian money scam is the most famous, but I still see variations for money mules and other dubious courier type work "opportunities".  This kind of scam will appeal to people who are either really ignorant or think they can beat the odds.

4. Greedy Bastard Strategy

These mails usually involve some sort of immediate payoff for the receiver.  "Prize draw", "free Giveaway" that sort of thing. All they have to do to receive the prize is.... ...  These sort of strategies play to people who are both ignorant and greedy.  They have not yet learned NSTAAFL. 

The interesting thing is the complete lack of certain other strategies that I would expect to be used.  Things like "Please give money for sick children" or "help X". Appeals to the charitable nature.  Perhaps there is charity fatigue and the criminals think that other routs are more successful.  Or perhaps they are too ethical to use the approches that the actual charities use.  Or perhaps the charities have dominated that strategy and already have the "market" sewn up.

If we consider that scams, advertising and charities are all involved in the same sort of activity. That of trying to tap us for resources. Then we could look at them as being competitors and see them engaging in similar monopolistic activities in certain areas of the strategy spectrum.

While charities are trying to "voluntarily" extract cash resources, advertising is trying to manipulate our behavior directly, and scams are trying to manipulate our behavior to extract cash resources (involuntarily).

What happens when a charity stops asking politely and starts using manipulation to "extract" resources (with the best of intentions of course....)?  For instance, showing graphic pictures to elicit horror, guilt, discomfort etc.

How does this compare to a beggar showing tourists some personal injury/body odor etc and refusing to remove it until they are paid?  It uses the same mechanism of shock and discomfort.

Is the charity asking you to pay for a happy outcome or to make the picture go away?

Contrast this with charities that show positive outcomes only.  Happy healthy people working and growing, children learning in schools, crops growing etc.  Does it press any buttons?  Satisfaction, pride, sharing, communal feelings of karma?  Does it press the buttons hard enough to get cash to pop out of our pockets?

In the middle are charities that use both. Certain medial charities who show the injured and then show a doctor rushing in to help them, from which we assume there is a positive outcome.  Then ask for some funding to help pay for the doctor to keep doing this kind of work.  This plays on our assumptions that a doctor arriving means that the problem is solved ( Does everyone think that doctors are miracle workers? Do we watch "House" way too much?  Most of the GP's I know are barely competent to prescribe antibiotics. If their handwriting is anything to go by they are mostly illiterate.  This may be a rant for another day.) 

This really raises the question about the difference between a scam and a charity.  Either or both may be started with either noble or selfish reasons, the difference between them is measured on the number of people who benefit and to what degree they benefit.  Where many people benefit in ways that raise them from below the poverty line to above, its called "Social good", while when few people benefit and are raised significantly above the poverty line, its called crime.  Same sort of model for medical work, education and farming programs etc
Now with those two anchors, imagine a spectrum between them, where the two variables ( number of people, average change in poverty) and you can start to see not only a range of models but also a few edge cases where the models allow hiding massive personal gain for a few people.

For instance, a scam that raises a small number of people from poverty to subsistence... has a similar effect as a charity that raises a small number of people from poverty to subsistence.  

We need a more useful metric for evaluating charities and scams.

This also highlights the other side of the equation.  Who looses and how much do they loose.  Any removal of resources, either "voluntary" or involuntary results in some degree of loss to the "victim".  How many people lost something and how much was the loss. (Be it time, money or other resources)

Basically, all these systems are value transfer mechanisms.  Different to trade but not completely alien.  They all share similar basic psychological mechanisms, its just the degree of utility that the various mechanisms are employed that differentiates them.

Trade based on fear, horror and guilt is alive and well at your local shopping center; but so is altruistic, ethical, fair and meaningful trade. How do we evaluate and make decisions, policies and choices between them? 

On another spectrum are those scams that camouflage themselves as charities.  The door to door donation collector who pretends to be from some charity; the disaster relief workers who evacuate children from disaster zones and then sell them for "adoption".  These both exploit trust and reputation and focus the benefit towards a very small number of people.

The properties that I think are meaningful for the evaluation of these kinds of trade mechanisms are:

Evaluating the Exchange (Resources - time, money, well being, stress level, karma etc)
Aggregate Value Change for Party A
Aggregate Value Change for Party B
Aggregate Value spill to environment (incidental value spillage into the environment outside the control of both parties)

Mechanism to motivate the exchange (What buttons have been pushed to motivate the transaction? Hunger, Threat of Pain/Damage, greed, fear, status, popularity, novelty, excitement, horror, pity, anger, love, hope, desperation etc)
Mechanism applied to Party A
Mechanism applied to Party B
Mechanism spilled to the environment ( exposure of people/places/animals etc of parts or whole of the manipulation mechanisms outside the control of either party)

Really they can only be evaluated when its all "complete" or reaches some status point if its an on-going or cyclical relationship.

What about the use of "free give away's" and "prize draws" for advertising.  Scam?  There is still a value trade between the parties so does it count in some way as a "trade"? Do both parties some how come out with more value than they went in with?  Is this a value creation mechanism?

Does value obey the laws of thermodynamics?  Can value be created or is there a finite amount ( at least a finite amount for the purpose of calculating a trade exchange) Can value be destroyed?  Where does "value" come from?

If "value" does not obey the laws of thermodynamics and it can be created and destroyed (in an absolute sense within the abstraction we call the global/national/local economy)  then understanding the mechanisms for both the creation and destruction would be of interest to various people.  Especially on a personal level. 

Does each person born introduce a fixed amount of value into the economic environment?(If so ecconomists should be scrounging every single person on the face of the planet for harvesting...) Does education add value to a person or reduce some "negative" value abstraction that has yet to be named (Ignorance? or could "stupid" be considered as a measurable quantity), and thus "increase" the availible value up to some abstract maximum?

Fun games.....

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