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True Story: I Made $1000 By Responding To One Spam Email

The holiday season and the US presidential election were in full swing. So I was growing increasingly curmudgeonly by the day. Add to that the fact that I had multiple deadlines looming. Oh! And I hadn’t had coffee yet. So I was probably an 8.5 on the “I hate the world” scale.

And it’s not even 8:00am.

I had just started my I’m-not-quite-ready-to-get-out-of-bed-but-I-should-probably-start-working-on-something sequence. First stop: email. After glancing at a few emails, I come across a spam email that was sent to everyone in the philosophy department.

Subject: Weekly Thoughts 11/28/2015

Attn: Graduate Students,

Because you are Graduate Students in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University which is ranked #1 in “Action Theory”, I thought you might enjoy the email below on November 28, 2015.

Man has free will to:

1) “ask” or not “ask”

2) “seek” or not “seek”

3) “knock” or not “knock”

It is his choice.

Veritas Omnia Vincit.

Merry Christmas,

[redacted], author of [redacted]

I’m puzzled, to say the least.

After rereading the spam email, I realize that the sender has appended all their previous spam emails to this email, forming a long (long!) thread of their spam emails to various groups of people — like a one-man chain letter.

I couldn’t resist. I scroll through about 30+ appended emails. Right away, some patterns manifest. First, the sender targets philosophy departments and academic institutions. Second, all the emails follow a template:

Attn: [So-and-so]

Because [such-and-such], I thought you might [evangelical Christian stuff].

Veritas Omnia, Vincit

Attn: [So-and-so]

Because [such-and-such], I thought you might [evangelical Christian stuff].

Veritas Omnia, Vincit

Attn: [So-and-so]

Because [such-and-such], I thought you might [evangelical Christian stuff].

Veritas Omnia, Vincit

I google the sender and find people posting about these spam emails online. Same sender. Same style: template, appended thread of prior spam, etc. The spammer has been doing this for a while. And they have spammed far more than 30 institutions.

While checking out these posts online, it occurs to me that all of these spam emails contain the email addresses of everyone who has ever received the spam. The email addresses are in the “To:” and “CC:” fields — they’re in the appended emails as well! And the email addresses aren’t just departments’ catch-all email addresses (e.g., philosophydept@stateu.edu). They’re people’s individual email addresses (e.g., so-and-so@stateu.edu, such-and-such@stateu.edu). Some are personal email addresses (e.g., …@gmail.com). So anyone who receives this spam can see all prior recipients’ email addresses.

Let’s recap: the spammer is not only (i) sending unsolicited emails with (ii) religious prodding. They’re (iii) indiscriminately disseminating lots of people’s contact information.

Obviously, I’m now a solid 10 on the “I hate the world” scale. It’s time for justice! …unless justice requires getting out of bed, of course.

Fortunately for justice, my laptop is on my bedside table.

I start my response. I want to turn the tables. The sender needs to (i) receive unsolicited emails with (ii) religious prodding, and (iii) have their email address shared indiscriminately. And, if possible, the sender needs to feel mocked, so I try to mimic their formula.

Mr. [redacted],

Because you seem to be interested in talking to more or less anyone about your religion ([urls of web pages talking about this person’s spam]), I’ve opened a local Craigslist ad which invites people to reach out to you via your email address above. I hope this helps you find what you seek.

Happy holidays.


(Don’t think I didn’t actually make the Craigslist ad. I did.†)

I click send, get out of bed, and start thinking about other things.

A few days later everyone in the department gets another email from the spammer.

Attn: Mr. Nick Byrd,

The First, and Biggest, Question in Free Will Project (2013-2015) has named your work the winner.

The check for $1,000 will be sent to:

Mr. Nick Byrd

c/o Dr. [Redacted]

Department of Philosophy

[Redacted] Dodd Hall

Florida State University

Tallahassee, FL [redacted]

I would like to thank all the Philosophy Grad Students that have submitted their work over the last two years.

Merry Christmas,


To be clear, I didn’t submit to any such contest.†† This is clearly just another spam email. This time, I decide to ignore it.

The campus mail service shuts down over the break between the Fall and Spring, so I forget about the spammer. I finish the semester, visit family, and gear up for my Spring semester.

When I come back to the office in January, I find an envelope in my mailbox. It’s from the person who sent the spam. I open it. There’s a check inside. It’s made out to me.

  • Amount: $1000.00 ………..
  • Memo: “Tithe”

Seriously? Tithe?!

I’m not sure what to do. I’m certainly NOT going to deposit the check — at least, not under the pretext of a made-up contest. So I send the spammer another email.


There was a check and a card in my mailbox today. I definitely didn’t think that a check would actually be sent.

I’m not sure what to do with it. I certainly don’t deserve it. I definitely didn’t submit to this pretend contest. And I’m not responsible for the department’s reputation in philosophy of action. I just responded to your email. And I didn’t even respond nicely.

So what do you want me to do with this check?

The spammer responds:

Dear Nick,

I know you do not understand. I also know you did not respond nicely.

But, you did something for me that I did not know how to do, and you did it beautifully!

I think it is normal to award a winner for a project. Out of all the grad students that responded, you are the winner!

Cash the check.

Best wishes,


They really want me to take the check, eh? Fine!

But I’m not keeping the money! I’m just not comfortable with that.†††

I deposit the check. It clears.


† I wasn’t a total monster about it. I created the Craigslist ad using the sender’s email address, so that the ad would not be published without the sender’s consent.

†† The email is obviously crafted to mimic (mock?) an award letter from a former Templeton-funded project organized by someone in our department. This is weird because (a) those awards were issued a couple years ago and (b) the “award” email was sent to the person who issued the awards (which is backwards; award letters come from the award issuer, not the other way around).

††† Who knows why. Maybe because I bear no unique claim to it. The original email was sent (and addressed) to all the grad students. And the only reason we received the email was because of the department’s reputation in action theory (something for which I cannot take any credit). So there is a sense in which, if the money belongs to anyone in the department, then maybe belongs to the department as a whole…or maybe only the grad students. But this is just my post hoc rationalization. Who knows what ultimately causes me to be uncomfortable with the idea of taking the money.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

4 thoughts on “True Story: I Made $1000 By Responding To One Spam Email”

  1. This is so bizarre. I’ve always thought it would be fun to leave in my will something like this – a random contest to give away money to a random person for almost no reason. Maybe this person really just wanted to see who would take their bait! Amazing story.

  2. It couldn’t have gone to a nicer philosopher. You could use the money to keep the game going and send out your own SPAM email :)

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