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Cognitive Persuasion through Lexical Manipulation: Spam E-mail Analysis


Cognitive Persuasion through Lexical Manipulation: Spam E-mail Analysis

Ibrahim Srour( [1])


Because of the little attention given to spam e-mail analysis from a linguistic and cognitive point of view, the researcher aims to conduct such an analysis in hope that it would be a contribution and a fruitful addition to the field of Linguistics and cognitive spam e-mail analysis. Spammers create fake profiles and assume false identities. They attempt to persuade their victims through manipulation. They do this through language. Their persuasive language paves the way for throwing the net of deception so as to fraud e-mail recipients. The purpose of this paper is to shed light on the contextual pattern and the choice of language that spammers utilize in order to fraud their e-mail recipients. To achieve this, the researcher adopts Shank and Abelson’s (1977) SPGU cognitive schema model.

          Key terms: Spam e-mails, lexical choice, manipulation, cognitive persuasion, schemata


The advancement of technology greatly contributed in the appearance of new communication means where the electronic mail or e-mail is one of them. The advantages of the e-mail are the following: free of charge, cheap, easy to handle, and swift in its reception. Also, one can send many e-mails to many people in different places, all at once.

What is interesting is the feature of making the Spam e-mails anonymous on the part of the sender. This trait enables the spammer to adopt any identity. According to Susan Herring (qtd. in Holmes and Meyerhoff, 2003), anonymity is a feature not only of internet users but also of spammers. Apparently, the spammers disguise their identity for two purposes. Firstly, either to create a specific social impact, or secondly to deceive and employ such deception in fraud activities. Spam e-mails scam people through tricking them into a small business venture, a transfer of funds that will inform the recipients of being a beneficiary of a large amount of money as ‘next of kin’, a compensation for being a scam victim, and a recipient of COVID-19 Relief Package.

          Moreover, spammers are specialised in spam or fraud e-mails. The Federal Trade Commission (p. 2, 2009) in its CAN-SPAM Act defines spam as “…unsolicited commercial electronic mail that includes any commercial emails addressed to a recipient with whom the sender has no existing business or personal relationship and not sent with the consent of the recipient.”

          Usually, such kind of spam or fraud e-mail is received in the Gmail or Hotmail inbox in a particular mail category labeled SPAM. Spam e-mails are considered to contain an attempt of phishing. According to (2013), a phishing attempt takes place at the end of the e-mail where it occurs after the spammer narrates a predicament. This includes taking from the recipient the most detailed personal information (p. 23). These are placed towards the bottom left end of the spam e-mail.

          The selected material of this study consists of fifty five (55) spam e-mails written in English collected from the e-mail of the author of this paper. However, in the author’s mail inbox there are unsolicited e-mails or spam e-mails written in other languages such as French but these will not be subject for analysis. The period of collection was between February 2020 and August 2020. These spam e-mails are descriptively analyzed by using Shank and Abelson’s (1977) Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding (SPGU) schema model (qtd. in Cook 1994). The purpose is to pinpoint which contextual features and hat language choices the spammers are able to manipulate their recipients into drenching up their money.

Literature Review

          Most literature on e-mails discusses ways to prevent the reception of fake e-mails. They present softwares or specific Acts, or even test particular firewalls for e-mail protection. This literature review presents what issues have been dealt with in relation to spam e-mail analysis. The following studies complement the field of spam e-mail analysis in terms of conducting a discursive, pragmatic, gender, and/or linguistic analysis. They pinpoint several features of spam e-mail writing strategies.

          Heyd (2008) examines the importance of narration in spam e-mails. People express their day-to-day life experiences by means of narration or storytelling. Even if it is a minute event, they dress it in the form of a story which is accurately told. Accordingly, spam e-mails use such a technique which includes a choice of lexis related to the genre of storytelling. This enables spammers to control the recipients and entangle them to continue reading the e-mail in detail. Such e-mails follow the storytelling pattern of having an introduction, a climax, and a persuasive content, to end with the finale: ‘what is required of the recipient to perform’, otherwise some mischievous result might take place.

          According to Whitty and Joinson (2009), people with specific individual capabilities communicate easily via the Internet. This issue greatly affects the notion of credibility solicited to spam e-mails by the recipients. This in turn also influences the spammer in that he/she abuses the anonymity feature to conduct the scam. This is achieved by either inventing a fake identity or adopting a fake personality. Whitty and Joinson’s study reveals that males use factual language in e-mails to talk about events or a personal achievement. However, emotive language and intimate ideas are used by their female counterparts.

          Chiluwa (2009) analyses the pragmatic elements in spam e-mail business proposals. There is the application of Speech Act Theory to examine the discourse strategies and their functions. The study concludes that such practices have become a parcel of one’s online social activity because the economic situation forces people to find some escape through spam e-mail.

Beldad, A., De Jong, M., & Steehouder, M. (2010) consider the notion of truth in their analysis of online communication. They posit that truth is quintessence not only in communication but also in the online one. This applies to all forms, especially to virtual economic transactions. To Beldad et al. (2010), the acceptance of these virtual transactions rests on the people’s trust in such processes as well as the other parties or organizations involved.

          Viswamohan, A. I., Hadfield, C., Hadfield, J. (2010) analyse the discourse strategies and linguistic features of spam e-mails. The focus is to analyze the “promise of an inheritance from a benefactor from distant shores” (p.1), through the e-mail opening sequence. The article reveals that there are interdependent roles among language, culture, and technology. It is these roles that scammers use along with the “pleading” tools in order to deceive their recipients into giving up whatever money they have secured for themselves.

Belli and Jimenez (2015) study spam e-mails from a gender and an emotive point of view. The aim is to analyze gender identity and emotions in such e-mails, specifically the emotion of ‘fear’. They believe that fear contributes in the construction of deception through narration. In their study, Belli et al. (2015) draw a link between the ‘fear’ constructed by the spam e-mail and that of the fairytale narrative. They also reveal a connection among spam e-mail, gender stereotypes, and fairytales with respect to ‘fear’. The analysis focuses on the linguistic and the psychological elements used to create the emotion of fear in the recipients. Belli et al. (2015) conclude that there is a clear similarity between the utilization of fear in e-mail stories and fear in fairy tales, where e-mail stories and fairy tales depend on the gender identity of the author.

          Chiluwa (2017) examines e-mail scams in terms of the discursive strategies used where stance position is of essence. She applies Hyland’s (2005) model of stance to study spam e-mails from Nigeria. The paper concludes that spammers reveal themselves in the victim’s stance. They use deceptive stories of known events so they can get money from their recipients. She also highlights the deceptive techniques of the spammers from a positioning a point of view.

          Hua, Tan, K., Abdollahi-Guilani, Mohammad, & Zi, Chen, C. (2017) posit that victim’s vulnerability, in e-mail fraud as to the perception of the content demands, is in continuous increase. The cause/s of such an increase must be linguistically in need for further investigation. Such an issue must be assigned suitable methodologies of analysis. Moreover, they examine Chinese cyber fraud e-mails from a linguistic point of view. They analyze 50 conversations of several interlocutors in terms of Speech Act Theory and Politeness Principle. They conclude that spammers present untrue information as being true, through language manipulation, using online deception.

          Olajimbiti (2018) examines 60 fraud e-mails written in English language by analyzing the discourse patterns and pragmatic strategies used. The purpose is to examine how spam e-mail writers are able to deceive their victims, which discourse patterns aid them to accomplish this and in which contexts, and finally through what pragmatic strategies they ensnare their victims. Also, Olajimbiti (2018) identifies six discourse patterns in various contexts used by spam e-mailers. The study concludes that these cyber-spammers employ familiar discourse patterns, contexts, and persuasive language to scam their victims.

Theoretical Framework

          The SPGU schema model adopted in the analysis of spam e-mails aids the analyst in revealing how spam e-mail victims perceive the spam e-mail. The analysis levels of SPGU help in exhibiting the spammer’s strategic language manipulation. Moreover, the choice of this model is eclectic for the following reasons: First, it facilitates the analysis of e-mail discourse. Second, according to Cook (1994), it is detailed, rigorous, and influential. Third, its object is text production and processing, and fourth, its interest is the human mind and how it interprets texts. The SPGU model is structured into five levels as follows:

  1. Understanding
  2. Themes
  3. Goals and Sub-goals
  4. Plans
  5. Scripts and Tracks

          Shank and Abelson (1977) believe that if the researcher is to analyze texts rigorously, avoid vagueness and achieve clarity in analysis, it is necessary to start the description using a ‘bottom up’ approach. Then, the level of understanding acts as an interpretative level.

Spam E-mail Analysis According to SPGU

Situational Scripts:

  1. Help or aid in a business venture: “…I have a personal Project… I need your assistance to execute this transaction…”
  2. Collect scam victims’ compensation money: “The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is compensating all the scam victims and some email users with your name and email address found on the list.”

Personal Scripts:

  1. The fake role of the spammer and the false identity he/she adopts: “I am Mr. Thompson Govo and I work with UNITED BANK OF AFRICA”, “I am Barrister Fred Branson”, or “I am Aisha Muammar Gaddafi, the only daughter of the embattled president of Libya, Hon. Muammar Gaddafi”.
  2. Spam e-mails bestow the victims with ‘unreal’ social roles. In fact such roles are ‘virtual’. They are as follows:
  3. A Relief Package Receiver: “Your email was randomly selected for the COVID 19 Relief Package…” or “… you have won $1,500,000.00 in this year 2020 which was organized by UNITED NATIONS COMPENSATION COMMISSION GENEVA…for outbreak pandemic relief…”
  4. A beneficiary of a dormant or locked money: “… in this bank existed a dormant account for many years and… I will front you in the bank… back you up with relevant information…”
  5. A charity worker or recipient: “YOU WILL USE 60% TO BUILD AN ORPHANAGE HOME IN MY NAMES…”, or “…then 10% for the Orphanage”.
  6. Next of Kin for sender and/or recipient: “…you will stand as an appointed legal beneficiary (next of kin)…”, “I am Aisha Muammar Gaddafi, the only daughter of … Muammar Gaddafi”, or “I will front you…as the Next of Kin to the late customer…”
  7. The e-mail sender is a spammer and a fraudster who wants to steal people’s money through specific means. Accordingly, spammers impersonate ‘any’ fake role/s. Such roles start in the opening of the e-mail. That is, the spammers reveal an alleged identity through fake names such as Mr. Thompson, Mark, or Williams. Moreover, spammers also adopt oriental names as well such as Mariam, Ali, Hamadi, Ameer, or Aisha. All these names do not create any kind of scam suspicion to the recipient because they are ordinary names.

          Ivanic (1998) views that mentioning one’s identity is a powerful means for authoritarianism construction, advocating a particular cause or ideology, or persuading the readers or recipients. Revealing identity aids in structuring a credible authority. As such, spammers use common names and identities so as to create an interpersonal relationship between them and their recipients. Examples are as follows: “I am Mr. Thompson Govo and I work with UNITED BANK OF AFRICA”, “My name is David Dawson, Claims manager at UN.Org…”, or “I am Jerry Williams. Nationality Sierra Leone. I am 23 years old, a student.”

Moreover, when a famous late president is mentioned in the spam e-mail and the sender assumes an identity of being a living relative of this president, its function is twofold. First, to generate authenticity in the reader’s mind and second, to pave the way for sympathetic trust between both parties. All this is grounded in the recipient’s mind and emotions, especially if the mentioned president was killed or assassinated. In addition, by adopting such an identity, the spammers create the following mental schemata: any surviving offspring of the person mentioned in the e-mail would be expected to be living in a negative situation. It is this situation which would require an immediate action from the spam e-mail recipient to save the day. Thus, spammers base their scam on events or on people of this kind in order to portray themselves as being victims of circumstances. It is this portrayal that is in itself the intended scam used to fraud the recipients. If the scam is to succeed, then the real victims would be the recipients and not the spammers. Examples are as follows: “I lost my father years back. He died during the political crisis in my country. My late father was one of the directors under tijan kabbah government…”, “I am the only daughter of the embattled president of Libya, Hon. Muammar Gaddafi. Am a single Mother and a Widow with three Children…but living in a refugee camp here in Africa…”

          Through the spammers’ choice of language and dramatic narration of unfortunate events, spam e-mails compose an elaborate masquerade to entrap e-mail victims into giving up their money. The language of spam e-mail is designed in an intricate way so as to become an elaborate scheme to steal people’s money, conjure the recipient’s sympathy, and appeal to one’s emotions, such as greed. According to Koenig Kellas, J., Willer, E., & Kranstuber, H. (2011), we make sense of our social relationships by telling stories about such relationships, to ourselves and others. Their true effect lies in its psychological implications in that they reside in one’s mind for long periods of time. They are invoked by the appeal to many emotions and are activated by narratives and use of metaphors. Kellas et al. (2011) believe that it is the use of metaphors which gives these dramatic stories their credibility and legitimacy. That is why spammers use such a language technique in their spam e-mail writing.

          To clarify this point, spam e-mails are rich in such examples as “I am writing this mail with tears and sorrow from my heart asking for your urgent help. I have passed through pains and sorrowful moment since the death of my late father…my family is the target of Western nations led by Nato who wants to destroy my father at all costs”, “PLEASE I AM WRITING THIS MAIL TO YOU WITH A WEIGHT OF SORRY IN MY HEART…I HAVE BEEN SUFFERING FROM BREAST CANCER DISEASE OF WHICH THE DOCTOR TOLD ME I HAVE FEW TIME TO LEAVE, I AM 66 YEARS OF 66 YEARS OF AGE”, “…I am currently hospitalized in a private hospital in Benin republic as a result of brain cancer”. Moreover, an interesting example is ‘COVID-19 Relief Package for Second Quarter Reimbursement’. It is important in that the spammer uses an up to date topic which is the pandemic that is globally known and widespread. Also, the spammer considers the recipient as either someone with COVID-19 or has an infected relative who needs compensation money as people are not working due to the lockdown imposed by the pandemic spread.

Instrumental Scripts

          This level is the means by which the spammer executes the scam or fraud. It mainly starts with the sending of the fraud e-mail. Then, it includes what the proposition is and dictates the detailed methods and tools that the spammer uses to elicit money from the victims. The basic component for achieving the spammers’ goal essentially rests on the primary communication tool which is language, and in particular the English language as it is a global one. Hence, analyzing the lexical choices the spammer uses in the detailed content of the spam e-mail aids the researcher to reveal how and by which steps the spam is to be accomplished.


          Spammers use block letters to intensify the recipient’s sense of sympathy with the e-mail sender. The purpose is to create an emotional shock in the recipient so as to accomplish the spammers’ deeds. Therefore, block letters are utilized to attract the recipient’s utmost attention into fulfilling what the spammer desires. Examples are: “I AM SORRY TO INTRUDE INTO YOUR PRIVACY, I KNOW YOU WILL BE WONDERING HOW I MANAGED TO KNOW YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS, I SAW YOUR PROFILE IN THE INTERNET WHEN AM LOOKING FOR A RELIABLE, TRUSTWORTHY PERSON TO HANDOVER MY FUND TO, I DIDN’T WANT YOU TO SAY NO TO MY OFFER, BECAUSE I HAVE PRAYED OVER IT AND SEE THAT IS YOU THAT CAN HELP ME”. This indeed will attract the focus of the recipient as it is intended for surprise through the words themselves and their manipulative content.

Use of Connectors

          Spam e-mail writers use connectors of politeness and endearment forms such as ‘Hello Dear’, ‘Dear Friend’, ‘DEAREST ONE’, ‘My Dear’, ‘Hi’, ‘Good Morning Dear Friend’, or ‘Greetings!’ as social markers to denote affinity and a positive attitude or ‘face’. Sometimes they use very formal, polite yet attention seeker terms that demand the recipient’s utmost focus, as in ‘Attention Sir’ or ‘Attn. E-mail Address Owner”. This is a formal greeting. Yet, it denotes respect and honour. Such a language choice is utilized to entrap the recipients. Moreover, these spammers provide their victims with all the necessary personal information as to their name, identity, nationality, gender, social role, statue, and job. For example: “…I would like to introduce myself to you, I am Mr. Ali Abraham, a banker by profession, I work with one of the largest banks here as the Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer”. So, revealing their personal (yet fake) identity profile, social status and occupation provides authentication to the recipient. In fact, the more common the names and identities of the spammers are, the more deceptive the recipients.

Use of Nouns

          Spam e-mails use posh nouns and names of famous institutions such as the “Federal Bank”, the “International Monetary Fund”, “Federal Bureau of Investigation”, “Western Union Money Transfer”, the “United Bank of Africa”, the “United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs”, the  “UNITED NATIONS Compensation Commission GENEVA” and “Africa Development Bank”. This use is important in that it marks an initiation of the fraud process. These names invoke feelings of interest in the victims and make them curious to know more about what is to come. Such a use of names plays on their psychological sense of expectation and creates in their mental schemata a frame of financial prominence and security.

Financial Register and Lexis: Verbs and Nouns

          Spammers play on the socio-economic status of the recipient. Their choice of financial register and its lexis enables them to appeal to the mediocre or even the low economic state of the recipient. Furthermore, by employing words related to the business field, spammers conjure up a specific mental image in the mind of the recipient: one of immense riches if the e-mail was adequately responded to. Thus, the use of words such as ‘fund’, ‘business proposal’, ‘investment’, ‘project’,‘withdrawing money’, Western Union money ‘transfer’, profitable business’, and ‘A business woman dealing in Gold Exportation’ all compose to the recipient a cognitive perception about wealth and luxury. Therefore, they construct a definitive mental plan that starts to grow up the minute the recipient reads the spam e-mail in detail and gets mentally involved in what it promises. However, all these wealth-loaded verbs and nouns are accurate means to steal money from the spam e-mail victims. In fact, the e-mail is a false promise of extreme riches. Spam e-mails also include a particular lexical choice pertaining to ‘generousity’, for example: “you will take 50% of…” or the recipient will have a “reward”, a “compensation”, or suddenly the recipient “will stand as an appointed legal beneficiary and this amount will be paid into your account”, a “successful winner…of an authorized award payment fund”, or “We have decided to give you 10% of the total sum for your kind assistance”.

Particular Lexical Choice

          Spam e-mails contain particular lexis designated to invoke a specific effect in the recipient. Words such as ‘please’, ‘you are trustworthy’, and ‘please dear friend’ are affective in that they create a positive effect in the recipient and portray the positive attitude of the spammer toward the recipient. This positive mental state of the recipient becomes a channel for trustworthiness between the two. It also makes their communication more ‘friendly’. The use of these expressions elicits high emotions and positive responses. Such a lexical choice acts as a very persuasive tool to demand a swift response from the recipient. Moreover, most spam e-mails that are analyzed by the author were ‘supposedly’ written by females. This is because most of them include poetic or dramatic expressions. Examples are: “I am writing… with tears and sorrow from my heart… I have passed through pains and sorrowful moments…”, “… you will not betray my trust… am as your own sister or daughter…”, “am writing with a weight of sorry in my heart… I have prayed over it for you to help”, “… build an Orphanage for my heart to be at rest”, and “it is my desire to write from my heart”. These lexical choices are full of emotions that invoke pity, sympathy and fear in the recipient.

Sentence Structure and Eclectic Grammar Choice

          Most spam e-mails are composed of long sentences and contain complex linguistic structures. These create in the mind of the recipient the idea that the sender is knowledgeable in the domain of his/her work as finance, money transactions, or economic issues. For example:

“My father of blessed memory deposited the sum of Twenty Seven Million, Five Hundred Thousand, Dollars ($27.500.000.000) in Bank of Africa Burkina Faso which he used my name as the next of kin. I have been commissioned by the Bank to present an interested foreign investor/partner who can stand as my trustee and receive the fund in his account for a possible investment in his country due to my refugee status here in Burkina Faso”. The use of financial jargon such as ‘deposit’, ‘bank account’, investor’, ‘trustee’, and ‘fund’ initiates a mental schema of knowledge/no knowledge which leads the recipient to assume that the spammer is credible. This portrays the spammer as a person of expertise in a specialized domain that the recipient can trust. Thus, the schema is as follows:

Spammer = + knowledge + expert       credible

Recipient= – knowledge – expert          can trust spammer

          In addition, spam e-mails use for example imperative verbs such as “Show your interest and we proceed on the next step of action”. This usage is an indirect order because it gives no room for the recipient to choose. So, its usage creates a schema of “being obliged to act” either on ethical, financial, or religious grounds. It forces the recipient to act “on the spot”, or “instantly”. This use also embeds the following schema: if the recipient is not to act at once, something mischievous is to incur. It is on this obligation that the spammers build their scam or fraud on.

          Furthermore, spammers use the –if clause as a prime conditional for the accomplishment of the alleged business of fund collection. For example in “IF I RECEIVED A POSITIVE REPLY FROM YOU THROUGH THIS MY PRIVATE EMAILADDRESS”, “… as soon as I receive your positive reply to my private email ID”, and “If interested, e-mail me for more details about the fund”. The use of this conditional is important as follows: if the recipient is interested, he/she is to contact the sender via a specific e-mail other than the one from which the e-mail was delivered. Pragmatically, the specific e-mail means ‘private’ and ‘personal’ which creates a schema that the recipient has been singled out and as such is trustworthy and valued. Such a play on one’s ego is a decisive tool in the hand of the spammers. As for the ‘positive reply’, the spam e-mail embeds a threat. The sender indirectly means that if she (Mrs. Biyu Chi, which is another pun on ‘beauty’) does not receive a positive reply, which is not any reply, she will not send her main address. This means that the recipient’s loss of money is certain.

          Moreover, the eclectic choice of personal proper nouns as to the names of the sender is of essence. It invokes a sense of safety, sincerity, and friendliness in the recipient. Accordingly, the victim will not suspect any fraud operation when encountering such common names as Davies, Jeffries, or William in an e-mail. These are known to everyone and as a result are less susceptible of a scam. In addition, some e-mails are culturally specific such as the fake e-mail address “babaalibbr10”. Its name is an inversion of the famous name “Ali Baba” of the “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” of The Arabian Nights or the e-mail titled “Laura Ralph” or another by “Patricia Santos”. The first is a play on the global name ‘Ralph Lauren’ and the second is the female name of ‘Patrick’ and ‘Saint’ which both become ‘Saint Patrick’. This leaves no way for the recipients to doubt the sender. Hence, creating a credible e-mail profile ensnares the victims into believing that the e-mail received is a real one sent by trustworthy people. What is worth noting is that the researcher has received a spam e-mail informing him of an off shore deceased relative and there is the claim that he is the next of kin to this person. The addressing is very personal: “Hello Dear Srour”. It creates a sense of affinity, a notion that the sender knows the recipient, and that the recipient has been selected. More details of this spam e-mail are in the appendix.


          These include the category that the spam e-mail is suggesting such as a business venture, with all the instances related to that same category, for example money embezzlement and money fraud through money transfer. These embed instances in the domain of finance such as business investment, or financing a project. Moreover, spam e-mails harbor the following tracks as well:

  • Charity work and Donation
  • A Business Project
  • A beneficiary of Relief Fund
  • A recipient of a Reimbursement for being a victim of a disaster or a disease, e.g. COVID-19


          The digitization of the e-mail and the appearance of spam e-mails are considered a novel experience to the public. As such, it demands interpretation with reference to the spam e-mail content and language choice. As a structure, ‘Plans’ is regarded as a schema.

Spammers con their recipients into being a part of some bank transactions or beneficiaries of sudden riches from a well-established deceased person. They also trick the recipients into disclosing important information concerning their bank accounts and/or visa card number so that the ‘illegal’ fraud money transaction is deemed ‘legal’. For example: “The transaction… will go in line with the law in our favor”, “United Nations Compensation Commission authorized the award payment”, and “This is a genuine, risk free and legal business transaction”. It is noteworthy to mention that spammers ask for more specific personal details such as the marital status, mobile number, the recipient’s picture, and most importantly his/her passport. The spammers accordingly use particular language choice related to the field of Finance and Banking which enables them to gain a sense of trust from the recipient.


          In their spam e-mail, fraudsters resort to a cunning lexical choice to make the recipient eligible of what he/she is to receive. They play on the psyche. This choice preserves the real identity of the spammer and reveals a sense of trust in the direction of the recipient. That is, the spammer totally ‘trusts’ that the recipient will accomplish what is intended in the e-mail.

          In addition to using lexis related to real life events and dramatic narration, some writers of spam e-mails play on the notion of religion. By using religious lexis and themes, they invoke religious emotions of fear and punishment. The language choice related to the register of religion perpetuates a sense of reassurance in recipients toward the spammers’ intentions. The spammers are portrayed as God fearing people who abide by their religious duties. This is amalgamated with the theme of ‘goodness’ which is clearly revealed in the e-mail. That is, the recipient will be trusted with a good some of money (based on his/her firm religious belief) where part of it must be ‘donated’ to charity or used for the public good. Examples of this are as follows: “… then 10% for the Orphanage”, “… you will build an Orphanage in my name at your country”, “I have chosen to contact you after my prayers and I believe…”, “… the aim is to alleviate poverty”, “ONLY YOU CAN HELP ME IN THIS SITUATION AS A RESPECTED GOD FEARING PERSON THAT YOU ARE”, “…for the work of God and charity May the good Lord bless you”, “Thanks and GOD BLESS YOU”, and some even use religion specific greetings as “Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh” which is Islamic.

          This level is the final one in the SPGU schema theory. It involves an interpretation of the spam e-mail analysis conducted in this paper. Spam e-mails harbor some important notions as follows: business propositions, a play on the recipient’s ego, invoking a mental configuration of wealth and high business social status, building a mental schema of the idea of being ‘someone important’, and taking advantage of the recipient’s poor economic condition. All these notions intricately interplay through language choice into deceiving the recipients to give their money away. Therefore, lexical choices that have specific resonance make spammers as manipulative as possible in utilizing convincing persuasive language to achieve their malicious goals.

          The only way money to be available at the recipient’s disposal is after something dramatic has taken place in the life of the fraud e-mail sender. These range from assassination, war, a terrorist attack, or some great calamity. This is exacerbated by the dramatic narration of sequential events. The purpose of such dramatization is to ‘preserve’ the spammer’s life, whether financially or economically, by pushing the recipient into taking an immediate action: sending whatever money he/she has whether in the form of fees or otherwise. However, the spammer creates in the mind of the recipient the idea that if this action is not taken on the spot, an immense loss would occur for both parties, but the main person to lose is the recipient.

          The particular use of ‘drama’ lexis such as ‘cancer’, ‘widow refugee’, ‘destroy target’, ‘end the race’, ‘death’, or ‘disaster’ often exhibit misery, unhappiness, and induce several emotions between the spammer and the recipient. Therefore, these register-specific lexical items are used as a manipulative means to create a schema of ‘an urgency for help’ in the mind of the recipient. Through this urgency, spammers force the recipients to answer to the spam e-mail indirect imperatives.

          Moreover, the recipient of the e-mail is tricked into a virtual role so as to execute the spammers’ orders. This is achieved when the spammers request from the recipient to ‘assume’ a certain role, such as being an investor in some reputable company. Spammers require an assistance of some kind, whether in management, a friendship proposal, or in a mediation for a business institution. By doing so, they bestow on the recipient a somewhat high social role and by extension (semantically speaking), a social status of a high caliber: being a “reputable” social member which is in the form of an “investor” or a ‘collector of funds’. As a result, this creates in the mind of the representative a schema of  being ‘posh’ and an effective social member, thinking of all the benefits that come with such positions. In fact, recipients get the ‘illusion’ of being ‘someone’ in the real world which, as a result, detaches them from their surroundings and their real world becomes a ‘digital’ world. It is a world ‘mentally created’ by the spammers through a particular lexical choice.

          Furthermore, spammers utilize a lexical choice related to the register of religion. Since most people are religious, spammers depend on the recipient’s belief in the religious system. So, they target the recipient’s will to do good in order to spam them into taking their money. Hence, words related to the context of the religion mask the spammers’ real intent. By using religious words or themes, spammers construct the idea of sublime good acts in order to deceive their recipients. Such words cause a sense of safety in the victims, and spammers abuse such a sense. Accordingly, spammers play for example on the idea of ‘charity’ to create a mental image of ‘generousity’ in the mind of the recipients out of their ‘belief’ or ‘religion’.


          From what has been presented, this study goes in line with that of Whitty and Joinson (2009) wherein senders of most spam e-mails are females. This is apparent from their lexical choice which is of emotive language. There is also the use poetic language so as to strike deep in the heart of the recipient, i.e. to arise a sense of utmost sympathy as much as possible. This study also parallels the one conducted by Beldad et al. (2010) and that of Viswamohan et al (2010) in that the transactions are mostly virtual and there is a promise of an inheritance from abroad.

          However, this study reveals that in one of the spam e-mails spammers have used the family name of this paper’s researcher as a prime subject of the scam. He is to be appointed a legal beneficiary of an industrial company manager (a kin) who passed away abroad. What is of essence is the spammers’ demand of passport details (in addition to the ordinary personal details such as the marital status and mobile number) in the scam as a strategy to con the recipient. The present study also shows that the spammer’s lexical choice, for example, of the–if clause is a necessary condition for the recipient to get the necessary funds. Accordingly, the lexical choices used by e-mail spammers create the necessary mental schemata for the deception of the recipients and their indirect coercion to execute what is demanded. It is a choice that plays on the psychology of the recipients, indirectly issuing an order for some action to be taken on the spot.

          According to the above analysis and interpretation, and in line with Hua, Tan, K., Abdollahi-Guilani, Mohammad, & Zi, Chen, C. (2017), this paper recommends the conduction of further analyses, for example, as to the stylistic features of spam e-mails and the notions of social discourse at play. Such analyses enlighten the researchers to know more of the spammers’ elusive means of frauding their recipients and how they adapt such means to one’s surroundings.


Beldad, A., De Jong, M., & Steehouder, M. (2010).How shall I trust the faceless and the intangible? A literature review on the antecedents of online trust. Computers in Human    Behavior, 26(5), 857-869.

Belli, S. & Jimenez, M. (2015). Gender identity and emotions in email spam. Papeles del CEIC. CEIC (Centro de Estudios sobre la Identidad Colectiva) International Journal on Collective Identity Research. Universidad del País Vasco 2(129), 1-12.

Cook, Guy. (1994). Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind. Oxford University Press.

Chiluwa, I. (2017). Stance and positioning in email scams. Covenant Journal of Language Studies (CJLS), 5(2), 18-31.

Federal Trade Commission. (2009). The Can-SPAM Act: A compliance guide for business.

Holmes, J., & Meyerhoff, M. (2003). The Handbook of Language and Gender. Blackwell.

Hua, Tan, K., Abdollahi-Guilani, Mohammad, & Zi, Chen, C. (2017). Linguistic deception of Chinese cyber fraudsters. The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies, 23(3), 108-122.

Hyland, K. (2005). Stance and engagement: A model of interaction in academic writing. Discourse Studies, 7(2), 173-192.

Ivanic, R. (1998). Writing and identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. John Benjamin.

Koenig Kellas, J., Willer, E., & Kranstuber, H. (2011). Fairytales and tragedies: Narratively making sense of the dark side (and the dark side of making sense) of personal relationships. In W. Cupach and B. Spitzberg (Eds.). The Dark Side of Close Relationships II. 63-94. Routledge.

Olajimbiti, E. (2018). Discourse patterns, contexts and pragmatic strategies of selected fraud spam.

Shank, R. and Abelson. R. (1977).Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding. Erlbaum.

Viswamohan, A. I., Hadfield, C., Hadfield, J. (2010). Dearest beloved one, I need your assistance: the rhetoric of spam mail. ELT Journal, 64(1), 85-94. Oxford University Press.

Whitty, M., & Joinson, A. (2009). Truth, lies and trust on the Internet. Routledge.


Ibrahim Srour

Spam x
Barrister Fred Branson <>
Thu, Jul 9, 3:36 PM
to me

Why is this message in spam? 

It is similar to messages that were identified as spam in the past.

Report not spam

          Hello Dear Srour,
I am Barrister Fred Branson, a personal attorney to Late Ing. Alexander Srour, a national of your country, and a former Director of Air Liquide operation USA, an Oil & Gas distribution company base in United States of America. On February 3, 2015, my client died together, with his wife and their only daughter on the New York’s Train Crash, which unfortunately killed 6 people and wounded about a dozen others.

          My client had an account valued at about ($ 18.7 million dollars) he deposited in a bank here in USA. I’m contacting you, so that you will stand as an appointed legal beneficiary (next of kin),since you have the same last name with my client and this amount will be paid into your account then I will come to your country, you and I will share the money 45% for me and 45% for you, then 10% for the Orphanage.

          I don’t want you to worry about the legal part of the transaction because I’ll guide the transaction so that it will go in line with the law in our favor. I will need the following information from you to so that i will give you full details on how to achieve this;

Your Full Name: ————-

Address: ——————

Your Age: ————————-

Occupation: —————————–

Your Telephone, and Mobile for Communication Purpose: ——————–

Your Passport Number: —————–

I await for your urgent reply then I will give you more information.

With respect,

Fred Branson Law Firm

9750 Royal Lane

Dallas, TX 75231, USA

Phone: (254) 316-2084

Fax: (469) 423-5200

[1] -Ibrahim Srour (PhD) Associate Professor Applied Linguistics Lebanese University Faculty of Letters and Humanities English Department First Branch.

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