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Attacks by scammers appear to make sophisticated use of language ideology to abuse trust relationships. Language that indexes Africans allows perceived “authenticity” to be constructed in a way that breaks down a victims’ defenses — a variety of linguistic devices are used as attack tools.

Much of the success of a cross-cultural scam therefore comes from the ways in which attackers seem able to take advantage of victims’ ethnic, racial, religious, and especially linguistic stereotypes. The scams invite people to empathize and assist someone foreign in a struggle to save their heritage or their health. Victims are lured into the most remarkable investment opportunities as scammers portray themselves as hapless victims of interethnic warfare, or as simple bank clerks who have discovered unclaimed fortunes. The trusting individuals who embark on interethnic adventures soon find their bank accounts plundered, their life savings gone.

We propose use of language pattern analysis to help. Applying the tools of linguistic anthropology to a collection of five years’ worth of “African” scam email messages, we believe we have discovered a pattern for many of the linguistic and cultural devices through which the relevant stereotypes are accessed.

This paper discusses the linguistic pattern used by scammers, revealing language ideologies in question. It also demonstrates how linguistic anthropology can be applied to the challenge of developing linguistically and culturally adaptive controls for communication security.

Full 2006 paper (PDF updated Nov 2021): ottenheimer_Urgent-Confidential


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