Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Email Hoaxes and a Little Math

Recently I received emails from two associates regarding a “get rich quick” scheme. It’s made the rounds before and quite frankly I was surprised to see it poke its ugly head up again. While these hoaxes are mildly irritating, it only takes a moment of thought to determine that they absolutely must be false. Why don’t people think?

The premise of this particular scheme is that Bill Gates has teamed up with AOL to create a new email tracking system. It must be true, the message says, because the author heard it on Good Morning America. In essence, you forward the message to a bunch of people. For every person you forward the message, you receive $24,000. For every person that this group forwards to, you net $23,000, and so on. The author of the message states in closing that there are only two weeks left in the trial period and that he has just received a check in excess of $800,000. In other words, get in on the action now while you still have time.

OK, let’s assume you don’t know anything about urban legends, never heard of Google, Snopes and the like, and are in general, a credulous person. Hopefully, you know a little math. A very simple calculation shows that the scheme is impossible. I don’t know how many people watch Good Morning America, but I’d guess maybe a million or more. Let’s assume only 10,000 actually respond to this. Further, let’s assume that each responder forwards to only 10 other people (in the emails I received, I was one of at least 20 recipients). The second tier will contain 100,000 recipients, and if they do likewise, the third tier will have a million. Even if the fourth tier only forwards the message to one or two persons each, the payout will be an order of magnitude greater than the entirety of Mr. Gates’ fortune.

Duh.

Comments

  1. #1 J
    October 11, 2007

    You’re making a lot of assumptions about people’s ability to reason things out here. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the people who fall for these scams are not able to look at the logical consequences of their action past the next tier; you know, the same people who thought corn ethanol would be the answer to all our energy problems.

  2. #2 Dave S.
    October 11, 2007

    People don’t think because they see the holy grail…get rich quick by doing next to nothing. Its the American Dream. All it takes is a few “success” stories to sell it to the great unwashed masses. It never occurs to most that in a game where there are very few big winners and a great host of small losers, that they’d be in the latter group. That’s why lottery tickets sell so well.

  3. #3 Warren
    October 11, 2007

    It’s not lack of ability to reason; it’s the overwhelming nature of truly large numbers when it runs up against human intuition.

    One example is the classic one about the chessboard, a grain of rice on square 1, and doubling the rice count to square 64. Those of us familiar with computer science know how large a 64-bit number is, but if you ask the average Joe how many grains of rice will occupy square 64, you’ll get numbers off by many, many orders of magnitude. (Fast thinkers might try to square 64, for instance.)

    My favorite example to illustrate large number spaces and how little they’re comprehended by most people is the lottery. We have PowerBall here, like many other states, which is a standard six-number selection plus an extra ball. When I tell people that my lotto numbers* are one through six sequentially they stare at me in amazement, and even after I explain that the odds of getting that sequence are precisely the same as the odds of any other arbitrary selection, they still don’t believe it.

    This highlights a very common disparity between how we feel about things versus how they actually are — and of course is just one of many good examples why “It feels right” is an insufficient answer in the court of reason.

    ====

    * A fib. I don’t play the lottery.

  4. #4 PuckishOne
    October 11, 2007

    OK, let’s assume you don’t know anything about urban legends, never heard of Google, Snopes and the like, and are in general, a credulous person.

    Add to this “are ignorant of the law” as well as “don’t know anyone who knows anything about software.” Not only do “e-mail tracking” products not exist, they would be very illegal if they did.

    Sometimes I wonder which rock it is that shelters all of these uber-gullible folks. To know so little about so much surely requires a special effort, right? Right? (sigh)

  5. #5 blf
    October 11, 2007

    I’d suspect it’s a mixture of poor reasoning, poor mathematics (including the large numbers problem), doing (almost) nothing and get rich quick anyway delusions, an “I deserve it” delusion, and so on …. That is, no one fault, but a mixture of faults, the mix being different in different individuals.

    One possible additional fault which hasn’t been mentioned yet is the old rubbish “computers don’t lie”–my computer’s e-mail says X so it must be true! Wow! I’ve seen highly intelligent people fall into that trap (especially regarding the sorts of urban legends that Snopes et al. debunks).

    Which reminds me of the technical point that some of these scams are–or at least used to be and I assume still are–really ways of distributing viruses and other malware.

  6. #6 sailor
    October 11, 2007

    These are interesting because thy work like human actuated viruses, clogging up systems. I guess it works for those that cannot write a virus.

  7. #7 Gingerbaker
    October 14, 2007

    “Even if the fourth tier only forwards the message to one or two persons each, the payout will be an order of magnitude greater than the entirety of Mr. Gates’ fortune.” – Jim Fiore

    That is the stupid kind of stupid thinking that stupid losers who stupidly don’t send on the e-mails are stupid to think.

    Bill Gates doesn’t run out of money, because he TOO forwards the e-mails along and gets the money.

    I’m not making THAT mistake.