Recently, multiple suspicious user accounts were created on Less Wrong. These accounts don't post any content in the forum. Instead, they are used only to send private messages to the existing users.

Many users have received a copy of the same message, but different variants exist, too. Here are the examples I know about. If you have received a different variant, please post it in a comment below this article:


Hi good day. My boss is interested on donating to MIRI's project and he is wondering if he could send money through you and you donate to miri through your company and thus accelertaing the value created. He wants to use "match donations" as a way of donating thats why he is looking for people in companies like you. I want to discuss more about this so if you could see this message please give me a reply. Thank you!


hi. ive made 500k+ the last half year on esport betting and i can show proof. i was a great poker player before that so i have reason to believe i am good and wellsuited at this. i want to offer free education to one of the efw people that have their priorities straight in this world and will work towards minimising existential risk. the higher intelligence the better. ultimately i would like to offload some work to someone because currently i am gettin gquite a bit burnt out and i would like to study finance, and having someone take advantage of the incredible ineffeciencies in this area is of huge importance. i would like to discuss this with someone and how to make it real, and have exchange of thoughts on all of the aspects on how to best do it. i can post proof and make donations to miri to show im serious so that we or someone else could have a discussion about it


I don't know yet about anyone who replied and got scammed, so this is all based on indirect evidence. If you got scammed, please tell me. If you are ashamed, I can publish your story anonymously. Your story could help other potential victims.

Most likely, the scheme is the following:

  1. The scammer will send you money.
  2. Then they will ask some of the money back because they changed their mind, or they mistakenly sent you more than they wanted, or their financial situation suddenly changed, or whatever.
  3. After receiving the money from you, they will flag the original transaction as a fraud, so they get back the money they originally sent you, plus the money you sent them back. Then they disappear, or it will turn out they used a stolen identity, etc.

(Thanks to ChristianKl for explaining the system in the Open Thread.)

If you replied to the original message and now you are already in the middle of the process, please inform your bank as soon as possible! Even if the step 2 didn't happen yet, so you can still get out without losing money, warning your bank about the scammer could help other potential victims.


Warning: If you have already received a check or a payment confirmation, and someone is asking you to send the overpayment back quickly, do not send anything. The check or the payment confirmation is fake, and the goal is to make you send money before you find out. (Thanks to qsz for explaining.)

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Please note, in most versions of such scams the perpetrator does not actually send money (as in step 1 in the OP). Instead they use some combination of fake checks (yes, printed checks!), fake "payment confirmation" emails or fake websites along with social engineering and time pressure, to make the victim think money has been sent, in the hope that they will "refund" the overpayment before realising the initial payment was not real.

So if you're reading the OP and thinking "I can just collect the money in step 1 and then ignore the refund request" (whether planning to donate yourself, or even keep it), it's not likely to work out either.

I agree. It is bad to do what scams say, even if you think that you can trick the scammer. Plus, they will put you on a "vulnerable" list and you will get more scams.
I don't know about that. It can be hilarious.

If I wanted to run an experiment to test how susceptible to scams the LW community actually was, this is exactly how I would do it.

4Adrià Garriga-alonso8y
I would probably use better spelling in the messages. It reduces credibility of the scammer.
no actually; they want to weed out people who notice spelling. If you notice spelling you also probably notice scams. (this is a commonly known pattern of email scams). if only good scammable people respond; all the better for them.
5Adrià Garriga-alonso8y
Today in Hacker News there's a research article speaking exactly of this. Makes me think that a possible method to mitigate spam would be to answer each email with a LSTM-generated blob of text, so the attackers are swarmed with false positives and cannot continue the attack. Of course, this would have to be implemented by the email provider.
Because LWers adopting this rule would not produce a swarm of false positives (and therefore I won't do it).
Not necessarily. There are various ways to get scale without being a big organisation. You could for example write a Thunderbird plugin that gives people who install that plugin a "Nuke Spammer" button.
1Adrià Garriga-alonso8y
This is what I thought. But ChristianKl is right: it doesn't need to. From the first false positive you're already doing damage with almost no cost to you. Sure your address will start to receive more spam, but it will be filtered like the spam you already have is. But having it in the ISP, or as a really popular extension, would deal a big blow to spam.
If you have an extension that sends false responses the spammers will have an incentive to avoid messageing those email addresses.
But they could still use/ sell your address for spam that doesn’t work with a mail response, but clicking a link. (E.g. shopping for C1/\L|S.)

Gotta give props to them for steelmanning their marks. Leswrong cant be the most gullible user base.

I and some of my friends have gotten emails from scammers who say they want to buy several paintings from my artist website, but are moving and want to use a bank check- or something similar. What I have done is reply that I will only accept payments through PayPal. Then I never hear from them again. Bitcoins would also work. The problem with testing it out by accepting a check or Bank order and depositing it in case it is for real is that you will get hit by a hefty fee from the bank if it bounces.

I was messaged by and responded to both. I suspect they're different people.

I also am not sure they're scams in the traditional sense. An employer match is the sort of thing that encourages this sort of thinking:

Whether or not this is within the letter of a match policy depends on the specific policy, but it's typically against the spirit and recommended against by Double the Donation. So even if there is no lurking chargeback, I would caution against this as burning the commons for short-term gain.

Also, if you have a strange story, keep Robin Hanson's recent Facebook post in mind:

If someone ever wants to give me $1M+ out of the blue, I hope they'll do more than send me an email w/o phone number I could call to confirm

Keeping that in mind, so far hans_jonsson seems legit. (I've only put a moderate amount of effort into verifying his claims.)

I was messaged by and responded to both. I suspect they're different people.

Update: they are different people, but the first one was working for the second one.

If there is nothing fishy, why do they contact people via private messages instead of posting in the forum? Typically the reason for contacting people individually, when the public announcement would be the natural way, is to prevent the contacted people from seeing each other's reactions.
For the first, one may want to not have a public record of attempting to subvert systems; for the second, one may only want to discuss it with specific people instead of anyone who expresses interest. Note also that our anti-spam measures means that, as far as I'm aware, a new account can only start out posting about this sort of thing in the Open Thread, which may be non-obvious to someone who spends little time on LW.
There is a chance that you are right. I feel like it's about 10% though. I apologize in advance if I am wrong. But I acted on the chance that I'm right and that I may save some naive altruistic student's money.
theres a 10% chance hes right after hes to some extent verified my identity? i didnt wish to post my message very publicly cause it embarrassing and awkwardly like i was bragging when i wished to be honest, and hopefully show that im competent. how could my message of offering free education even be scammy? as i said i can prove it to vaniver and he can relay the information. im just looking for a smart person with the right priorities to educate on this so i can justify taking a break, and limit workload in general. i havent taken a single day off since i started aside from the very few days where there generally hasnt been any of the esport games that i focus on. the other message was from my "associate" who i asked to look into ways to maximize value, dont like seeing money go to waste if avoidable
I apologize if I wronged you, but if you are honest, please act publicly, especially when it includes asking members to participate in financial transactions. Money is no taboo here. MIRI asks for money publicly by posting an article (December 2015, August 2015, ...). Members post articles with financial advice (Twenty basic rules for intelligent money management, Financial Effectiveness Repository, A Guide to Rational Investing, and many debates in the regular Open Threads). According to our recent survey, 71 members work in "Finance/Economics" and 38 work in "Law"; and although some of them specialize in things irrelevant to your proposal, most likely a few could provide a valuable feedback, maybe even a warning of what could possibly go wrong. It is your insisting to work behind the courtains that seems fishy to me. You try to make the recipients of your messages feel special, yet you and your associate copy/paste the same messages to multiple people. If your goal is to provide free education, you could have posted the first lesson publicly. If you don't want to be public with your name or with the name of your company, just create a pseudonymous account called e.g. "JumpingSquirrel2016" and refer to your company as e.g. "CompanyX". Even if your goal is to find two or three people to cooperate with privately in the future, you can still advertise your skills by posting one free lesson publicly. People who are experts in some area don't have to keep all their knowledge secret; there is usually at least 90% of the information known to enough people, sometimes even taught at universities. For now, it seems like your priority is to send money through someone else, because reasons ("accelerating the value created"). Everything else seems like a cover story to make people cooperate. I suspect that the promised free education is also supposed to only happen after the person participated in the transaction. If you are fake, your likely next step would be to send some
His first message to me involved asking where he could find his previous sent messages to copy-paste it to me also. Agreed that this is generally a good approach. Not sure if it applies to financial topics specifically, because 1) they're anti-inductive and 2) it's dangerous for people to be half-informed. Telling someone that there's money to be made exploiting inefficiencies in the penny stock market, but not what those inefficiencies are, could possibly lead to them losing a bunch of their money by making dumb bets that they think are smart.
So, Vaniver, are you personally going to cooperate with this guy in the "donating to MIRI through you" project? Could you please promise in advance to write an article about it when the financial transaction is over?
No, as detailed in the ancestral comment: I did encourage him to reach out to MIRI and figure out what their fundraising plans are, and whether or not he can pledge matching funds for that. (It seems like MIRI is likely to continue their open-ended fundraisers, but we'll see.) I am talking with him about his eSports gambling methodology, and trying to help him find an EA to work with on that. I would be happy to write an article about the results once there's enough info to do a retrospective.
"act publicly, especially when it includes asking members to participate in financial transactions." why should i ask publicly when asking personal questions about personal decisions? "It is your insisting to work behind the courtains that seems fishy to me. You try to make the recipients of your messages feel special, yet you and your associate copy/paste the same messages to multiple people." im insisting to work behind the curtains? when did i insist, and why should i ask publicly? so i could copy my message and try to find some suitable person that way? how do i try to make the recipients feel special? why would i change a message that i wrote as perfectly as i could? does the other people know i copypasted it? and would they then feel worse about it because of that? would there even be a logical reason to eel worse? " If your goal is to provide free education, you could have posted the first lesson publicly." its my goal to provide free education to as smart a person as possible with as good priorities as possible to get as much money into as vauemaximizing things as possible. i dont know if i have "lessons" ready and i doubt it would be good to post them publicly. this is a fake name too. "For now, it seems like your priority is to send money through someone else, because reasons ("accelerating the value created"). Everything else seems like a cover story to make people cooperate. I suspect that the promised free education is also supposed to only happen after the person participated in the transaction." my priorities are to as fast as possible get someone intelligent with the right priorities educated as well as donate current money the most effecient way possible. and if one can freaking double the money donated then it feels like a disaster to donate normally, so i asked that guy to look into how doable this is. feels like a cover story to make people cooperate? so my plan is to get people free education then donate through them? "I suspect that the prom
If you think you have worthwhile knowledge about how to bet that you could teach other people, write an article detailing your betting philosophy.
why would i want to spread this knowledge? i just want to find someone intelligent with the right priorities with some amount o time to spare on it that can take advantage of the market
You're kinda failing at that at the moment :-/

After the Nigerian space scam, the Nigerian rationalist scam. The first was surreal, but this... chapeau.


Note for whoever is behind this scam:

Next time, when picking a set of people to target, try to go for people who don't make a habit of studying epistemic rationality.

Let's not break our arms patting ourselves on the back, at least not until the data's in. At the moment we could be more, less, or equally susceptible to scamming than our demographics generally are.

It'd be interesting to see which, though.

And if this is presented as some sort of "competition" to see whether LW is less susceptible than the general populace, then if anyone has fallen for it, that can further discourage them from reporting it. A lot of this is exploiting the banking system's lack of transparency as to just how "final" a transaction is; for instance, if you deposit a check, your account may be credited even if the check hasn't actually cleared. So scammers take advantage of the fact that most people are familiar with all the intricacies of banking, and think that when their account has been credited, it's safe to send money back.

I was surprised to see mention of MIRI and Existential Risk. That means that they did a little research. Without that, I'd be >99% sure it was a scam.

I wonder if this hints at their methodology. Assuming it is a scam, I'd guess they find small but successful charities, then find small tight-knit communities organized around them and target those communities. Broad, catch-all nets may catch a few gullible people, but if enough people have caught on then perhaps a more targeted approach is actually more lucrative?

Really, it's a shame to see this happen ev... (read more)

Yes, scammers do the homework needed for this kind of project. I know someone who lost around $8,000 due to a scheme like this, through a letter which seemed completely familiar with my friend's interests. However, when I saw the letter (after the money was already lost), I informed him that it should have been evident from the beginning that it was a scam.
Just mentioning, but It's a good policy to avoid feeling good about figuring out anwers you already knew. --->
It does mean that not-scams should find ways to signal that they aren't scams, and the fact that something does not signal not-scam is itself strong evidence of scam.
Surely scammers will be more motivated to find good signals, and will have more opportunity to experiment with what works and what does not. Someone effectively signaling that they are a non-scam should be a hallmark of a scam.... which is why smart people like us need a long thread like this to explain to us how the scam works.
It might not be easy to figure out good signals that can't be replicate by scammers though. More importantly, and what I think MarsColony_in10years is getting at, even if you can find hard to copy signals they are unlikely to be without costs of their own and it is unfortunate that scammers are forcing these costs on legitimate charities.

Thanks for noting this.

We have a pretty stupid banking system if you can cancel a transaction after the target has had time to make a transaction back to you. Or it should be straitghforward and fee-less to cancel that second transaction as a consequence.

"We have a pretty stupid banking system if you can..." Yes, we do. It's a complicated system that developed slowly, piece by piece, influenced by legislation, commercial pressures, other (contradictory) commercial pressures, and customers' needs. The need for backwards compatibility makes it impossible to rip up the old system and start again, and no one person is in charge of designing it. Naturally it's messed up and has inconsistencies. ---Meta comment: At first I was writing this with the intention of saying, basically: "Duh! isn't that obvious?". Now I realize that that's really unkind and unfair. You've encountered something that you hadn't known before, and you "noticed you were surprised". That's a good thing, and it's good that you expressed it so that other people can realize the same thing.
I am not an American, and the American ways of transferring money are mysterious to me. When I want to send money from point A to point B, I log into a web page, fill in the required data, confirm the data, and in a day or two the money is there. If I understand it correctly, the American way to do this is to personally go to the bank, take a paper form, write the data on the paper, deliver the paper to the target, and the target must take the paper to their bank. It was a huge surprise to learn this, because I automatically assumed that the American ways of dealing with money must be more advanced and more convenient, just because of having more experience with internet and capitalism in general. But now I guess that the American system is simply a victim of its own inertia: these methods were invented and became a norm before the internet, and now people are resistent to the change, because no one wants to experiment with the new methods when their own money is involved. Still, I agree that the second transaction should be cancellable after the first transaction was cancelled. Not sure what is the trick here. Maybe the scammer wants the part of their money returned using a different method (one that does not allow cancelling, or has shorter deadlines). Maybe the plan is that most people will not notice the cancelling of the first transaction, or be busy enough that they miss the deadline for cancelling the second one. Maybe there is some psychological trick preventing the victim from cancelling. Really, I don't know (and not being familiar with the American system, even if I read an explanation, there is a chance I would misunderstand it).
Suffice to say: There are many different methods for sending money. Some of them will involve paper forms, some will not. Some of them involve the internet, some will not. And each one has its own rules. "Maybe the scammer wants the part of their money returned using a different method (one that does not allow cancelling, or has shorter deadlines)" This is essentially correct. I've read about similar scams, and I believe this was how they worked.
  1. You might want to repost this to Discussion if your intention is for the thread to get as much visibility as possible.

  2. I haven't looked at facebook today but this could be a good thing to repost to the facebook group.

It is promoted now, so it will stay on the main page for a longer time. (I don't know how long the scammers will stay here.) I reposted it in the facebook group.

Has there ever been any investigation to their identity?

None that I'm aware of. I suspect that no one actually fell for the scam... or if they did, they are too ashamed to admit it... so there is nothing specific to investigate.

The comments baffle me. I think it can be taken for granted that people on this site have an elevated sense of skepticism -- perhaps not enough to repel ALL scams, but certainly enough to recognize a scam when your attention is explicitly drawn to it contemporaneously. Why are we now wasting time with in-depth discussion ABOUT scams and methodology, WITH the scammer in the conversation? And if you believe him not to be a scammer, why are you putting a burden of proof onto him to countersignal "fishy behavior" rather than simply lay out behaviors which will not be tolerated, or setting up an escrow Bitcoin wallet?

They also have an elevated sense of contrarianism. I suspect it's not enough to make them literally send money to a scammer, but enough to argue publicly about giving the benefit of doubt. My long comment was written for the audience. To make people potentially swayed by clever arguments remember the context -- that this is a website where we publicly talk about donating to MIRI, publicly talk about money in general, already have a lot of quality financial advice, and no one is preventing our mysterious benefactor from posting an article.
Rationality isn't just about being skeptical, though, and there is something to be said for giving people the benefit of the doubt and engaging with them if they are willing to do so in an open manner. There are obviously limits to the extend to which you want to do so, but so far this thread has been an interesting read so I wouldn't worry to much about us wasting our time.
"I think it can be taken for granted that people on this site have an elevated sense of skepticism" I disagree. Being a participant on this site implies that one has accepted some or all of the central premises of the community: that we can significantly improve our lives by thinking differently, that we should be willing to think and behave in ways that are very counter-intuitive to the average person, and that we can learn to do all of this by reading and talking on a website. A great many 'normal' people would dismiss Less Wrong as a silly venture. Likewise, they'd be willing to dismiss something that looks like a scam immediately, without any thought at all. Those of us who pride ourselves on being clever, being willing to embrace an idea that other people would reject, and want to exploit loopholes and inefficiencies that other people have missed? I suspect we're less skeptical than the average person. Being on the site only signals that we want to be rational, and like to think that we are. It doesn't necessarily mean that we're good at it.

That's pretty well tailored to the community here, but there are still some red flags. How would them sending money to you and you donating it to MIRI "accelerate the value"? Also, why would a legit matcher not simply want confirmation of your donation without them ever touching the money?

Not to mention, is it really this easy to use anti-fraud tools to perpetrate fraud?

Some companies do donation-matching, so if an employee donates $X to a charity then the company will also donate $X. The scammer is pretending "I don't work for such a company, but I'd like to double my donation, so I'd like to send money to you and you donate it and then your company also donates".
Isn't that fraud? That is, if you work for a company that matches donations, and I ask to give you money for you to give to MIRI, aren't I asking you to defraud your company?
There are a lot of frauds that built on the idea that the recipiant of the fraud also engages in an illegal action. If the victim of fraud himself thinks he acted illegally it's less likely that they will go to the authorities. That's why we have the saying "You can't cheat an honest man".
Correct, but it is a kind of fraud that is hard to detect and easy to justify to oneself as being "for the greater good" so the scammer is hoping that you won't care.

Surely, as rationalists, we should do a controlled test to determine if these are scams? This will require some blindly chosen users to respond in a variety of different ways, some of whom should go through with the possible scam, and report the results.

EDIT: I think it's time to come clean. No, I am not the scammer, but this post wasn't serious. I'm rather surprised anyone thought it could be, to be honest!


No, if we're rationalist, we should figure out if the cost of doing the tests is worth the expected gain from getting the test results. If we're fairly certain that it's a scam already (so test results won't change the situation much) and if the tests are expensive, it might be a better idea not to test.

If we're rationalist, we don't start our reasoning with "If we're rationalist, then...".
Shouldn't we first determine whether the amount of effort needed to figure out the costs of the tests is less than the expected value of ((cost of doing tests - expected gain)|(cost of doing tests > expected gain))?
No, because you don't want ot get into an infinite regress about figuring out the cost of figuring out the cost to, etc. So you need to have a general policy about when to stop the regress, and ensure that your policy is good in most of the cases you'll actually run into in practice, while acknowledging that it may not be optimal 100% of the time.
So awkward it hurts that this is even a thing.
Why? Why do you believe that spending resources to run a controlled test is worth the effort?
I'm not sure whether people thinking I was being serious means I was being too dry, or exactly dry enough :D
This could be the scammer trying to get at least some return :)
Given the diction of the post of the scammer I doubt he's capable of averaging 89% positive karma out of 150 the way rosyatrandom did.
I thought it was a deliberate technique on the part of scammers to use bad grammar/spelling in order that their marks self-select for people that are less intelligent/educated etc It is plausible that the scammer actually has excellent diction.
In general that's a published theory. On the other hand I don't think those spammers target LW. Anybody who can follow the argument of the importance of matching donations for MIRI is likely put of by the bad grammar.
What about those who treat matching donations as an applause light, and simply do it because it is ingroup behaviour and not because they've followed the argument?
Isn't the whole concept of matching donations a bit irrational to begin with? If a company thinks that MIRI is a good cause, they should give money to MIRI. If they think that potential employees will be motivated by them giving money to MIRI, wouldn't a naive application of economics predict that employees would value a salary increase of a particular amount at a utility that is equal or greater than the utility of that particular amount being donated to MIRI? An employee can convert a $1000 salary increase to a $1000 MIRI donation, but not the reverse. Either the company is being irrational, or it is expecting its employees to be irrational.
In some jurisdictions it may be cheaper for the company to donate a given amount to charity than to pay it to an employee (because of tax rules intended to incentivize charitable donations). The company may value both employee-motivation and helping charities. The company may value being seen as the sort of company that helps charities.
This seems like a correct answer. The company (1) wants to be seen as the sort of company that helps charities, (2) doesn't care deeply about the charities, and (3) wants to motivate employees. The first part explains why they have a budget for charities, and the second and third part together explain why they let employees allocate that budget instead of the company doing it itself. The charitable explanation of the second part is that the company trusts their employees to have good knowledge about charities, and thus kinda outsources the research of good charities to them. On the other hand, an uncharitable explanation is that if most employees don't donate to charities, then this strategy allows the company to appear more generous than it actually is. For example, if a company with 1000 employees publicly declares to match each employee's donations up to $1000, it gives an impression as if they are going to donate $1000000 to charities, while in fact they may know that only five of their employees actually donate to charities, so the expected expense is $5000. (There is a risk this could backfire, but maybe they did experiments with smaller sums in the previous years, and/or maybe there is a small print somewhere making an exception in the case that too many employees decide to donate.)
There no reason to call a practice irrational simply because you don't understand it and it's not explained by naive application of classical economics. It seems to be good for branding. We know that spending money for others makes people happier. Employees who donate are happier than those who don't. That's valuable to the company.
An employee can convert a $1000 increase into a $1000 MIRI donation, but that requires the employee to get up and do something (i.e. log into his bank account and do a transfer). There's a chance for procrastination, laziness, and mental inertia to prevent that donation; employees who really want MIRI to get the donation might appreciate the company handling the actual getting up and doing it part (which the company can do rather more efficiently - making one big transfer instead of hundreds of little ones, with a corresponding decrease in both individual effort and bank fees). Also, since we're talking potential employees, then it might be a strategic move by the company to more strongly attract potential employees who strongly value MIRI donations and reduce the company's attraction to potential employees who do not value MIRI donations.
put of for what nonsensical reason?
Exercise left for the reader.
Ahh.... I've always wondered, without ever noticing that I was confused. Thank you.
Wait a moment. I can agree that it's a "common sense" guess that P(bad spelling | less education) >> P(bad spelling) but what that "technique" would imply is: P(finds text with bad spelling belivable | less education) >> P(finds text with bad spelling belivable) ...which is kinda more interesting. So to speak.

Hi, I first discovered this site a few years ago, but never really participated on it. Looking back, it appears I only commented once or twice, saying something condescending about morality. Recently, I rediscovered the site, because I started noticing updates on a Facebook group (no longer) affiliated with it. What's funny is I only realized I had an account when I tried to register under the exact same User Name. I've started reading the sequences and am interested in participating in the discussions. I've thought intensely about certain topics since I w... (read more)

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