Open Thread — A Free-Market Solution To Spam

If the myriad of emails coming into my inbox every day are representative of reality, there are many reputable universities willing to offer an easy path to a degree, many “nice girls” would love to share their pictures with me, Africa is full of rich orphans looking for an escape (along with a nice reward to help them get their father’s wealth out of the country), and someone on the internet is dearly concerned with the size of my… ahem. I’m referring, of course, to spam.

Spam is a bit of a scourge of the internet. Given that the internet is largely a lawless medium, our government has very little recourse to fight spam originating overseas. The cost of creating spam is nearly zero, the upside of even a very low hit rate is pure profit, and thus spam doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon that is solvable. After all, as long as gullible old ladies really do believe that the Nigerian prince is willing to give millions of dollars as a reward for getting their wealth out of the country, there’s really no way to stop this phenomenon, right?

The other day, though, I was thinking about it. These Nigerian phishing scams are not rocket science. There is a way to defeat them, without requiring government force. I thought of it as a merely personal idea: I would reply to every Nigerian scam email I receive, stringing the spammer along (making him think he’s swindling me) for several days or weeks, until eventually the spammer leaves me alone as he realize he’s wasted his time. Get enough of them to realize that they’re wasting their time by inducing a high rate of “false positive” responses, and they might look for other ways to scam people out of income.

Frankly, though, I just don’t have time for that. I barely have time to respond to important emails any more; I certainly don’t have time to engage in this sort of counter-spam behavior. The amount of effect I could cause would be miniscule in relation to the number of emails they send out. I simply can’t create enough false positives to dissuade them from their task…

But hotmail/yahoo/gmail can! Think about it. They make their living by doing things such as spam filtering, and as someone who receives a great deal of spam on a daily basis (the downside to having a publicly-accessible email address), an effort by the major email service providers would have both the scope and the size to effect some change. They have the incentive– competition with other email providers and protection of their users– and they have the resources.

For the scam artists, the keys to success are a high target rate (to maximize response), a low false positive response rate (because it does no good for non-dupes to respond), and a high conversion rate extracting the money from respondents. Creating a situation where there would be an overwhelming number of false positives in the system would increase the response rate, and thus reduce the conversion rate. Thus, it dramatically increases the cost of attempting to extract money, because the spammers will need to treat both the dupes and the false positives equally.

For a major email provider to assign a bank of interns to a job like this may even improve their subscriber base, as they can advertise a more spam-free email experience than their competitors. The spammers aren’t dumb. If they realize that sending spam to hotmail is likely to result in wasted time, but gmail and yahoo aren’t participating in these counter-spam tactics, they’ll stop sending to hotmail. The major email providers have the size and efficiency to engage in behavior such as this when busy guys like myself simply can’t afford the time to attempt it. All this, without relying on Congress.

So tell me… Would such an idea work? Would it make sense to create so many false positives in the system that the Nigerian Scam simply ceases to operate? Can it be done?