Analysis & Opinions - WIRED

Brace Yourself for a Tidal Wave of ChatGPT Email Scams

| Apr. 04, 2023

Here's an experiment being run by undergraduate computer science students everywhere: Ask ChatGPT to generate phishing emails, and test whether these are better at persuading victims to respond or click on the link than the usual spam. It’s an interesting experiment, and the results are likely to vary wildly based on the details of the experiment.

But while it’s an easy experiment to run, it misses the real risk of large language models (LLMs) writing scam emails. Today’s human-run scams aren’t limited by the number of people who respond to the initial email contact. They’re limited by the labor-intensive process of persuading those people to send the scammer money. LLMs are about to change that.

A decade ago, one type of spam email had become a punchline on every late-night show: “I am the son of the late king of Nigeria in need of your assistance …” Nearly everyone had gotten one or a thousand of those emails, to the point that it seemed everyone must have known they were scams.

So why were scammers still sending such obviously dubious emails? In 2012, researcher Cormac Herley offered an answer: It weeded out all but the most gullible. A smart scammer doesn't want to waste their time with people who reply and then realize it's a scam when asked to wire money. By using an obvious scam email, the scammer can focus on the most potentially profitable people. It takes time and effort to engage in the back-and-forth communications that nudge marks, step by step, from interlocutor to trusted acquaintance to pauper.

Long-running financial scams are now known as pig butchering, growing the potential mark up until their ultimate and sudden demise. Such scams, which require gaining trust and infiltrating a target's personal finances, take weeks or even months of personal time and repeated interactions. It's a high stakes and low probability game that the scammer is playing.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Schneier, Bruce and Barath Raghavan.“Brace Yourself for a Tidal Wave of ChatGPT Email Scams.” WIRED, April 4, 2023.

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