Like most unadventurous people hooked up to the internet, I nervously filter out about 90 per cent of my spam. This strains out most emails with saucy subject lines, but even the 10 per cent which slipped through the net I used to regard as a nuisance. But no longer. Let me explain.

Most people despise spam — that’s why it is called spam, after the revolting tinned meat which was fed to soldiers during the Second World War. It takes its name — so the story goes — from a loony Monty Python sketch  about a café which serves everything with spam. As the waiter recites the SPAM-filled menu to a hungry couple, helmeted Vikings tucking into their spam (Monty Python has a thing about Vikings) leap up and break into an energetic chorus of "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM… lovely SPAM, wonderful SPAM" over and over again. This spams the conversation.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of all email is spam — that’s 12.4 billion emails a day, or 2,000 per person. American companies complain that the cost of this is about US$9 billion. At least I don’t work for Acme, a California company which reportedly receives 1 million spam emails per day. Bill Gates only gets 11,000.

About a fifth of this email tsunami is pornography, so don’t open them. Nearly half advertises products and various financial schemes – fake Rolexes, counterfeit drugs, cheap mortgages – shady products for people who cannot resist a bargain. So don’t open them, either. About 10 per cent is out-and-out scams. More on this later. 

But the Monty Pythonesque quality of spam persists, which is why I enjoy it so much. Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste, but I contend that that spam is a new literary form – a kind of surreal literary counterpart to the graffiti spray-painted on city walls. Perhaps some humble Lagos litterateur or Dostoyevsky manqué in the Russian Mafia will be hailed as a literary genius some day. After all graffiti art by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) fetches up to US$700,000 — and he was no paragon of virtue.

There are three aspects which deserve to be highlighted preliminary to further research. The first is the infinitely varied spelling in spam subject lines. My spam filter works by junking any email containing the word Viagra. My spammers respond by altering one or two letters. Spelling may not sound like a literary genre, but there is a zany creativity involved in spelling Viagra a thousand different ways: Viagrra, ViÁgra, vǏaggra, ViagrǼ, V1agra — the combinations are endless. It’s amazing that they are able to keep the word recognisable without ever spelling it properly.

The second is names of the senders. One feature of the genius of Dickens was the names with which he christened his characters — Wackford Squeers, Ebenezer Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber and the like. But spammers have out-Dickensed Dickens. In the past week, I have received spam advertising mortgage schemes, drugs and Rolexes from:

Sport P. Fundamentalism
Interrogation C. Samoset
Magnus Tobechi
Besieger O. Permafrost
Snowflake E. Catalpas
Typewriter U. Furze
Elmo Pendleton
Malachi Patterson
Ducat T. Diphtheria
Discountenanced S. Terminable

There’s a sort of lunatic vitality in these names. Only someone with an iron will could avoid opening an email from Mummification K. Sitar.

And finally, there are the Shakespearean tales of exiled widows of fallen despots, sly lieutenants, orphaned zillionaires, — all within a hairsbreadth of unimaginable riches. (These, I should add, are the only emails worth opening. Would you trust a confidential message from Bakelite E. Epitaph?) In breathless and fractured English they sketch out a plot worthy of Mission Impossible IV. Here is one from Rev Fr Thomas Douglas of the United Nations:

Today a friend of mine who is a diplomat disclosed to me that there is a security courier service company that is specialised in sending diplomatic materials. After all arrangements we have concluded that you must donate US$500,000 to any charity organisation I designate as soon as you receive your money. Am helping you on this because something in me is tells me that you are an honest person. May God be with you as I wait for your response. Feel free to call me if you will like us to discuss more on this TEL: +221 4183317.

Recently widowed Mrs Roseline Williams takes a long time to get to the point — which is to send her an email to obtain a generous donation:

We were married for 18 years with a daughter (Lillian)who later died in a motor accident. We were both born again Christians. Since after his death I decided not to remarry or get a child outside my matrimonial home which the Bible is against. When my late husband was alive he deposited the sum of US$4.8 million in a General Trust Account with a prime bank in Abidjan Cote d’Ivoire. Presently, this money is still with the bank.

Recently, following my ill health, my Doctor told me that I may not last for the next six months due to my cancer problem. The one that disturbs me most is my stroke sickness. Having known my condition I decided to donate this fund to a Christian organisation. As soon as I receive your reply, I shall give you the contact of the bank in Abidjan. I will also issue you the documents that will prove you the present beneficiary of this fund. My happiness is that I lived a life of a worthy Christian.

Orphaned children seek your assistance:

We are the children of late Chief Sam Bah Billor from Sierra Leone. I am writing you in absolute confidence primarily to seek your assistance to transfer our cash of $30,000.000. My father including other top Government functionaries were attacked and killed by the rebels in November 2000 because of his relationship with the civilian Government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

As a result of my father’s death, and with the news of my uncle’s involvement in the air crash in January it dashed our hope of survival. The untimely deaths caused my mother’s heart failure and other related complications of which she later died in the hospital after we must have spent a lot of money on her early this year. Now my 18 years old sister and myself are alone in this strange country suffering without any care or help. Without any relation, we are now like refugees and orphans. Our only hope now is in you and the boxes deposited in the Security Firm.

And some of the petitioners are VIPs now living in penury:

I am Mrs Sese-Seko, widow of late President Mobutu Sese-Seko of Zaire. I escaped along with my husband and two of our sons Kongolo and Nzanga to Abidjan, while we later moved to Morocco where my husband later died of cancer disease. Due to this situation we decided to changed most of my husband’s billions of dollars deposited in Swiss bank and other countries into other forms of money coded for safe purpose. One of my late husband’s chateaux in southern France was confiscated by the French government, and as such I had to change my identity so that my investment will not be traced and confiscated. I have deposited the sum of US$28,000,000 with a security company , for safekeeping. What I want you to do is to indicate your interest that you will assist us by receiving the money on our behalf.

Others are businessmen who know the ins and outs of international finance:

I and my family fled Zimbabwe for fear of our lives and are currently staying in the Netherlands where we are seeking political asylum. We have decided to transfer my father’s money (US$12,000,000) to a more reliable foreign account since the law of Netherlands prohibits an asylum seeker to open any bank account. As the eldest son of my father, I am saddled with the responsibility of seeking a genuine foreign account. As a businessman, I am seeking for a partner who I have to entrust my future and that of my family in his hands, I must let you know that this transaction is risk free.

Some of these pleas, believe it or not, are successful. The New Yorker recently featured a profile of an American psychotherapist who fell so hard for a Nigerian scam that he ended up in the hoosegow for passing bad cheques to pay the scammers. But that is the tribute that life pays to great art: “the willing suspension of disbelief”.

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....