Please reply me immediately.

A couple of months ago some unscrupulous person created a google group and somehow managed to associate it with an email address. They they used the email address to spam some people in academia about a conference and set off a feedback loop. This feedback loop vomited frustrated replies to everyone on the list, and as people replied and forwarded, often with “STOP” or “PLEASE STOP” in the subject, cc’ing in people who they thought could advise, or help, the number of email addresses on the list seemed to grow.

We were trapped in a punishing echo-chamber. As the anger and desperation of those whose inboxes were being submerged in panicked messages grew, so did the number of messages we received. After a few days, some people recognised the trap in which we were caught. They started replying – with messages that ran through various versions of “can everyone please stop replying to these messages!”. These ‘please stop replying’ messages also pinged around in their hundreds – and were joined eventually by a new version, in which people berated people for asking people to stop sending messages to the email address involved.

After some days of this, the emails stopped coming. Weirdly I almost missed them. By this point I had joined a few online groups and twitter threads where people were expressing their amusement at the situation, or amazement at the numbers of emails.

Then the spam started. Somehow (I don’t know how, I’m not a spammer) the whole operation seemed to be a method of harvesting email addresses to sell on to cyber criminals and fraudsters, or otherwise enabling them to get past our junk filters. Since then I have been receiving 10-15 emails a day from a dreadful company of characters, some of whom are famous (Barak Obama’s lawyers and doctors feature heavily, as do various members of the Gaddafi family). Many are designed to be faceless bureaucrats, administrative workers or bank clerks, with anodyne, believable names.

Some of them have come into fortunes by far means, or by luck. They tell me that they are looking for dependable, trustworthy and honourable people to help them keep this money safe, or funnel it into the hands of family in the UK, or to orphans, hospitals or to pay for operations of desperately ill friends, or desperately ill children of friends.

At first I enjoyed the deliberate mistakes and inconsistent or unlikely details (designed, I’m told, to act as a filter to stop the knowledgeable, experienced or savvy recipient from replying, so that only vulnerable “marks” get through). I posted juicy ones to Facebook. My favourite is Mrs Jones the Japanese-Welsh bank clerk, who had married a Parisian before settling in Burkina Faso where she had stumbled across a large quantity of money, which now needs a safe haven in England. My friends and I also chuckled at the General in the US Army who had two different ranks, and used his first name and surname interchangeably throughout the email.

Since then things have taken a darker turn. My inbox is more likely to involve pleading stories of cancer, political danger, or family members at risk. I am asked to “reply me immediately” by imaginary people who are emailing strangers who seem upstanding, out of desperate need. The most effective ones evoke false images: children in hospital, people lying on dock-sides, eyes staring out of the ill-lit insides of helicopters and boats.

I no longer read them, of course. I delete every email that begins “I do not know you” or “dear friends, hello”. But I can’t ignore them. The point is that whilst the people are fictions, these later stories are real, some of them, many of them. There are so many desperate people in the world, and I ignore them, for the most part. I delete them. But the spam swills around, just out of view, lapping at the edges of my inbox.

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