Pascal's Email Mugging Scam

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Warning: This article is a joke. Do not attempt any scams. Do not attempt anything illegal. This article is not advice.

So I go to RIT, and their Internet Security Office sent out an email recently. They warn that scam emails are on the rise, especially since it’s harder to… uh… go outside and check.

One gem from their email was this example of a possible scam:

Example #4

From RIT LEADER NAME <RITEmailaddress@externalemail>

To: Your name

Subject: Request

Hello NAME,

  Are you available, We are giving out eBay gift cards to patients at Hospice Care Units across the community, the cards I bought aren’t enough, 

Can you order 8 eBay gift cards of $200 each online or pick them from any drug or grocery store?

This scam is basically like playing the lottery with free tickets: nobody will fall for it, but anyone who does fall for it will just hand the scammer a frickin’ car payment’s worth of untraceable gift cards, all in one go. It’s black swan investing, but for scams. Send the email to enough people, and eventually you’ll be rolling in ill-gotten gains.

I brought this up with Devin on Discord, and he joked:

“Can someone just try Pascal’s Mugging as an email scam already? "

First, a bit of background is needed:

Pascal’s Wager: An argument used to persuade people to practice a religion. Basically, if you don’t believe, or you sin against Christianity, you could go to Hell for eternity, and you’re tortured for eternity (or, at least, for a really long time). That’s really really bad, perhaps infinitely bad, but at least really really bad! Even if you’re an atheist, and you think the chance of hellfire is small… why take the risk? Just convert and believe and behave well, and you don’t miss out on much. If you don’t… even a small chance of hellfire could be worth protecting against.

Now, many of you are not convinced by the above argument. A popular counterargument for Pascal’s Wager is…

Pascal’s Mugging: A mugger comes to you on the street.

“Gimme 5 dollars!”, they command.

“Why?” you ask.

“Because”, the mugger explains, “I’ll give you 10 dollars tomorrow!”

Now, obviously the mugger will not be doubling your money. But if there’s a small chance, the mugger can just make up big rewards, as well as big punishments.

“I’ll give you 10 times your money!”

“I’ll give you a million dollars tomorrow!”

“If you don’t give me 5 dollars, I’ll murder 50,000 babies!”

Pascal’s Mugging means Pascal’s Wager can do anything, using improbable rewards and punishments. As long as they’re huge enough, a victim with poor understanding of probability (but still trying to maximize their utility) is forced to comply with the mugger’s demands.

And now Devin wanted a combination of the two ideas: high-risk high-reward scam email, plus the wild risk-reward dynamics of Pascal’s Mugging.

Of course, I had to operationalize this idea into a full article. I even added in the Many-Gods Objection to Pascal’s Wager!

Here’s how a scammer could do it:

  1. Find/buy/steal the emails of Facebook crystal anti-vax anti-gmo crunchy moms. Especially if they take a liking to astrology or paganism.

  2. Email them a pascal’s-mugging style email, based around an unlikely spiritual thing. “Give me ten dollars, and Neo-Pagan-Gluten-Free Kushiel will give you a hundred dollars back!” A savvy scammer doesn’t ask for much money yet. They just get their foot in the door for requests. 1

  3. Give them the unlikely reward (“Here is your $100! NPGF-Kushiel blesses you!”). This miscalibrates the victim’s judgment in favor of improbable, high-value outcomes. Thus, they are open to further scamming…

  4. Send them new emails every day or week or so, but with different religious requests, all following a Pascal’s Mugging script. This can be used to confuse and overwhelm the victim, which may further their compliance.

  5. Mix it up by occasionally actually giving them the unlikely reward (e.g., doubling their money). This increases the victim’s confidence in the scam, while the scammer wins in the long run.

Anyone who cares about fighting scammers, should be on the lookout for religiously-themed chain emails that subtly use Pascal’s Mugging scripts. If we’re not vigilant against these people, the above template could just be the beginning. In fact, for all we know, they were light years ahead of us all along.

And, again, the above are not instructions or recommendations. This is an illegal, awful scam. (And if you commit such a sinful scam, your punishment is not wacky and unlikely, but severe and realistic.)

  1. (Many scammers do well by asking, not for money transfers, but indirect untraceable transfers of value. Two popular options are gift card codes (especially for eBay, Amazon, or Steam), or any cryptocurrency that’s hard to trace (like Monero).) ↩︎

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