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Training Bulletin Issue 79

Green eggs and spam

This morning I logged in to my email and among the various things I knew I had to deal with, there was an official-looking one that claimed I needed to look at two fax messages sent to me by Sharepoint. The email had a Microsoft logo, lots of embedded links and pictures, copyright statements, a signature with a reasonable-sounding name, position, return address, phone number and in the footer, even a legal disclaimer containing, among other legal-sounding stuff, a Security Warning. Capitalised Like That, along with a bit more Irregular Capitalisation.

It also spelt my name wrong, said 'advice' when it should have said 'advise'*, came from somebody I have never heard of with a job title that is nothing to do with my function and a company with which I am pretty sure Plain Words has had no dealings. A quick internet search proved that this was typical of a common form of phishing email so I happily deleted it and got on with my morning.

Would that email really have fooled anybody?

You may well ask this – there was no shortage of red flags once you looked. As I am a grammar wonk, certain things are always going to catch my eye straight away. In this case they were enough to make me pay more attention and notice all the other dubious content. If I had been a bit more stressed, a bit more in a hurry, though, I might well have gone with my first instinct. I had been about to forward it to a colleague who's responsible for paying the bills, thereby, if nothing worse, wasting someone else's time.

You can fool some of the people some of the time

Clearly, these emails are generated in massive numbers and even with a tiny return rate from people that bit less cautious than I was, they must be worth sending. Some recipients don't notice the red flags and go ahead and click to download the purported 'Transactions and authorization letter'. They end up with a virus or other nasty from which the senders get some sort of return. If the spammer had been a little bit more careful, they might have got me too.

So why am I telling you this?

It certainly isn't my intention to school spammers in how better to fool us. The point I'm making is that a little bit of carelessness, which cost the spammer a possible victim, could in different circumstances cost a business a possible client.

All of us receive a lot of communications daily and the only way anybody can keep up is to form very fast first impressions of what we need to process. We decide very quickly whether to read further, delete at once or send on to someone else. We even have automated spam filters to make the first cull on the basis of often fairly simple pre-defined factors: try sending anybody an email with the word 'Viagra' in it and see how many get through.

If we accept that automated filters can decide what we read and what we don't on the basis of possibly very unsophisticated criteria then we also need to accept that we can make similar decisions ourselves. This means that companies do need to pay close attention to mistakes that some may argue are trivial. If your recipient notices them, they can make a snap decision that could cost you business or cause delay.

Nobody's perfect – what can you do?

I agree, nobody's perfect. But employers can make it harder or easier for their staff to make mistakes that cost them money. Pressuring people to churn out large numbers of documents such as proposals or replies to complaints in very little time makes it hard to write them carefully or check them accurately. This increases the chances of mistakes that get your bids rejected or make more work to fix things when customers complain further.

Companies can also make sure their staff have the skills to avoid mistakes or more reliably spot those that sneak through. Take a look at two of our courses, Brush Up Your English! to help avoid mistakes in the first place and Perfect your Editing & Proofreading to make it easier to find mistakes. It costs time and money to write to customers; why waste it with communications that might lose you business?

*advice with a 'c' is a thing, as in, 'Can I give you some advice?' advise with an 's' is a verb, as in, 'Can I advise you to…'

The same rule applies to 'device' (a thing) and 'devise' (something you do), 'practice/practise' and 'licence/license'. Note that American English only uses the 'ise' ending in the latter two examples.

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