The merchant spam detector

Image from The Pilot and Compass to Character Building, by Henry D. Northrop, 1900

A book seller, just like anyone else with an email address, gets lots of spam.

While we can be as skeptical as the next guy (or gal), we often have an added reluctance to discount an email addressed to the business because it might — just might — be from a customer. Though we love them dearly, there have been cases where real customers offer up disconcertingly spam-like emails.

But there are a few signs that can allow even the most conscientious merchant to consign an email to the trash bin without response.

Here’s a standard “hope the merchant is desperate for a sale” email I received recently:


Top of the day to you. I am Wilson Williams, I would like to place an order from your store but before i proceed, i would like to know if you can ship to USA or UNITED KINGDOM and accept credit card as a method of payment, If you do kindly get back to me with your valid website address for selection of items needed.

I await to read from you today. Reply to [email address]


Well, Will (can I call you Will?) I’m wondering how you managed to send me an email if you don’t know what my web address is. You haven’t told me the product(s) you want or asked what the cost might be. In fact, all you seem to care about is whether I will accept your credit card and ship to a foreign address. Sorry, but I’m looking for a more discerning customer.

And….we have a winner! This scammer wrote to me this morning, with a very detailed request. At least he’s including books:

From: Tokunboh Troy [email address]
To: [Troy’s email address]
Subject: Mail Order

Dear Sir/Ma,
How are you with business,Hope Fine…..I will like to place an order for the listed books, So get me the prices and availability as Follows :-

Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, 8th Edition By: Vinay Kumar & Abul K. Abbas (Author) Format: Hardcover ISBN: 9781416031215
Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry 5th Edition By: David L. Nelson (Author) Format: Hardcover ISBN:- 071677108X
Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Ninth Edition By: Bryan A. Garner (Author) Format: Hardcover ISBN: 0314199500
Franklin Electronic Bible with Holman Bible Dictionary KJV/NIV (BIB-475) ISBN: 1590744314

Awaiting your prompt reply soon and have a great time in business.

Sincerely Yours,
Tokunboh Troy

It does present a difficulty that I sell only used books and have none of those titles. Of course I do have real customers who sometimes ask me to acquire books for them, but they usually send their emails showing me, and not themselves in the “To:” line. Just for the heck of it, I looked these books up on Amazon and they range from $170 to $73 new, somewhat less used. You have expensive tastes, Mr. Troy.

To sum up, there are a few of the things that relieve me of the responsibility for even thinking twice:

  • Addressed “To” any email other than my business email. Showing blank or undisclosed recipients or the sender him- or herself in the “To” field is the sign of a mass emailer.
  • Email asking for my website URL or anything else the sender should already know. If you wanted to do business with me, you wouldn’t have to ask.
  • Email that doesn’t mention any product I have for sale.
  • Email asking if I accept credit cards and ship to foreign countries combined with any of the characteristics above.
  • Email asking me if I will use the emailer’s shipper even if no other scam characteristics are present.

And there are a few things that will make me think twice:

  • Email with significant grammar mistakes in English, especially when it purports to be from an English-speaking country. (These will usually have other spam-like characteristics.)
  • Email where the sender’s domain is a free email service, such as yahoo or gmail.

The customer may always be right, but scamming spammers? Feel free to delete away!


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