Nigerian Scammers and Philosophical Muggers




Anton receives an email from an individual who identifies himself as the now-deposed Prince of Nigeria. In his message, the individual informs Anton that he has $500 million in a Nigerian bank account which he wants to transfer to the US where he now resides, and for reasons unspecified, he chose Anton as a business partner of sorts in this endeavor. All Anton needs to do is to wire him $50 to cover processing and transfer fees. Presumably to encourage Anton’s cooperation, the individual promises to send Anton $50 million as reward once the transfer is done.

Surely, Anton is no fool. He sees that the proposal has all the telltale signs of an internet scam. Why can’t someone who has a fortune in an overseas bank afford to pay a petty transfer fee? Why should a former prince, who presumably has many international connections, choose Anton to help him out, even if he needed help in the first place? And why can’t he ask the transferring agency or bank to waive the fees or deduct them from the sum to be transferred? These questions appear to Anton to have no sensible answers.

Yet, Anton, a Humean wise man, proportions the strength of his conviction to the available evidence. He also prides himself on practicing epistemic humility. Knowing the finite nature and fallibility of his sensory and rational faculties, Anton believes that there could be only so much and only defeasible evidence against an empirical proposition. Thus, Anton never assigns a proposition zero probability however implausible or contrary to evidence the proposition may appear, save perhaps, obvious contradictions.

So, Anton reasons that although the individual who sent the email is almost certainly a scammer, there is a small but non-zero probability that he indeed is a now-deposed Nigerian prince who wants to give Anton $50 million.

Anton is also handy with numbers, and he calculates that if the said probability is greater than one in a million, then the expected economic utility of wiring the money on his end would be positive. Indeed, Anton, who occasionally plays the lottery, takes odds that are a lot worse than that.

Although the individual who sent the email is almost certainly a scammer, there is a small probability that he indeed is a now-deposed Nigerian prince. 

Still, a student of epistemic humility to even the meta level, Anton decides to consult his wife Alice, who thinks that it would be foolish to wire $50 to this individual because the odds of him telling the truth are lower than one in a million. Trusting Alice’s subjective assessment of probabilities, but not wanting to destroy any bridges, Anton writes back to the alleged now-deposed prince and politely declines his proposal. To his surprise, however, Anton receives an updated proposal in response: Indeed, the individual hadn’t been completely honest with Anton. The sum wasn’t $500 million, but $10 billion, which he is now willing to split in half with Anton, if only Anton wires a measly $5 dollars. …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More