Idea Time #1: Rhetorical Chicanery!

Today, I bring you Idea Time, a feature of sorts for this blog, in which I semi-seriously consider the various entrepreneurial and scholarly opportunities arising from random stuff in the world. Today’s not-too-terribly-original ideas: getting a little something from 419 scams and their ilk.

Are there better ways for me to be using my time? Yes. Am I currently doing any of those things? No. I am not.


Today, for the second time this week, I’ve received a version of this little scam email from “Wesley”, who addresses the subject line “Hey, Pretty” and just wants to get to know me:

Am Wesley from United States but currently in Syria for peace keeping mission. I want to get to know you  better, if I may be so bold. I consider myself an easy-going man, and I am currently looking for a relationship in which I feel loved. Please forgive my manners am not good when it comes to Internet because that is not really my field. Here in Syria we are not allowed to go out that makes it very bored for me so I just think I need a friend to talk to outside to keep me going………..

I would love to get to know the “real” you as a friend. Your likes, your dislikes, your interests……what makes you.

My favorite color is Blue. My favorite food is BACON, I could easily become a vegetarian if it wasn’t for bacon!!

I hope you can tell me more details about your job, relationship and your past………

Hoping to hear from you soon………


What I *love* about this silly thing is that whoever wrote it has clearly decided that the best way to make it perfectly clear that “Wesley” is from the US is to make sure the reader knows he absolutely *loves* bacon. That is, apparently, the most American thing ever, and therefore is included to lend the email a bit of much-needed verisimilitude.

Also: With all respect given to Wil Wheaton (who I don’t know personally, but who seems to be a good guy), I think this scam email right here may be the only instance in which it is not only appropriate but morally obligatory to respond to the sender with a hearty “Shut up, Wesley.”

Seriously. Shut up, Fake 419 Wesley. Just STFU.

I also received a version of the tragic tale of “Mrs. Sandor”  yesterday (variant spelling from header to message content: Sandol; variant form of address: Mrs. or Ms.):

Dear friend,

May the almighty God be with you as you read this mail.  Do not pity me for God is my strength even in my last days. I am Ms. Sandol Carlos, a widow to the Late Dr. Edmond Carlos, an English entrepreneur.  We own controlling shares in leading Multinational Companies in Europe. We are very wealthy, we have a lot of properties including Shares and houses. I am 75 years of age, Citizen of Great Britain but currently base in France. I am suffering from cancer of the Pelvic, my condition is very serious.

According to my doctor it is quite obvious that I may not survive the sickness. The story of my life is pathetic. I have never really cared for others but my family and our fortune until my late husband and my only daughter died in a ghastly car accident in September 2001. This event devastated me and changed the course of my life and I made up my mind to do the work of my creator by giving to the needy. I sold all my husband’s properties and shares which I inherited to enable me raise money to continue my mission. I raised the sum of 10.5 Million Euro which I deposited with Lloyds bank. Now that my sickness has gone to this stage, I am scared and I want the fund to be used for the work of God all over the world.

I have prayed to God to direct me to an honest person who will receive this fund and utilize it for things that will glorify the name of God. After my prayers, I decided to search the Internet site and I was divinely directed by God to your profile, I decided to contact you to receive the fund. This is on the condition that you will take only 20% of the funds for yourself while you will distribute the remaining 80% to charity organizations in your country.I cannot predict what will be my fate by the time the funds will be transferred into your account, but you should please ensure that the fund is used as I have described above.

Please I need your urgent reply so that i can direct you on how to go about it.

Most sincerely, Ms. Sandol Carlos


Leaving aside the hilarity arising from phrases like “cancer of the Pelvic” and the fascinating capitalization choices, one has to appreciate the highly efficient art of the thing. In three paragraphs, the scammer has presented a moving tale of redemption, one in which the intended mark can serve as an instrument of the very will of God. For the right mark, this is an elegant piece of persuasive fiction, pushing exactly the right combination of buttons to get results. There is clearly a template of sorts for this story (Wealthy Widow, Dying, Seeks Redemption Through Charity), requiring only the adjustment of some details to make it work for different contexts and audiences. My favorite, of course, is the one where the dying widow is trying to get the mark to help her to overcome the perfidious relatives who have poisoned her and murdered her daughter and/or husband, and are trying to find and control her son (who is the surviving heir to her fortune). The espionage flavor in that one is mighty tasty, I must say.

Idea Time!


I wonder if there’s a sort of manual out there for 419 scammers, or a writing class for them. Better still: This is an entrepreneurial opportunity! Surely someone has already thought of creating a Udemy class or some other money-making online tutorial for would-be email con artists — explaining the templates for versions of the con, workshopping details for customization, identifying cultural markers (BACON!) likely to lend that much-needed air of authenticity, that sort of thing. I’m half afraid to look for it, although I’m sure some resource of this kind must exist somewhere. Note that I’m not talking about attempts to scam the scammers or waste their time — that sort of thing is abundantly available and easy to find. I’m talking about the improvement of the tools for the trade — who provides such improvement, and how do they make money at it? [Note: I do not intend to pursue this opportunity myself, what with it being criminal and all.]


I’ve seen at least one nice example of someone (probably for a class) looking at the rhetoric of scam messages; there’s actually quite a lot of scholarly stuff written about the rhetoric of the 419 scam. What I’m interested in, though, is not rhetorical analysis. There is significantly less material floating around (so far as I can tell) about the aesthetic properties of frauds like this. What makes the stories in these emails (and the templates or models on which they are built) interesting as a body of literature, perhaps even as a distinct genre? There is material about narrative and genre in the 419 email, but it still seems to attend mostly to rhetorical rather than aesthetic properties. What would a “beautiful” example of such a message be like? What would make it beautiful?


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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