Small Business

Never Give a Sucker an Even Click


Jill Hamburg Coplan Hardly a day goes by that I don't get a letter from a distraught reader who has been tricked by outfits that prey on the desire to work from home.

"I was supposed to craft ornaments with materials the company would 'provide,'" writes Victoria Fuentes. "It turned out they were selling me the materials and to earn my money back, I will have to work for at least three months. They do not have a phone number, and the Better Business Bureau doesn't have any record of them."

These offer-mongers can be aggressive. I know because they fill my inbox with solicitations. I decided it was high time to explore these offers myself. They are definitely not for the faint of heart.

First I tried to 'Go Platinum!,' a pitch that promised nothing less than "the next AOL, Microsoft or AllAdvantage. Only BIGGER and making MONEY FOR YOU!! GOING PLATINUM is NEW, and INCREDIBLY EXCITING!...And once your earnings START, they NEVER STOP!"

NO CLUE. Incredibly excited, I hit its Web site and learned I'd have to pay $25 to sign up with "CompuBank," a mysterious entity that wasn't explained. Once paid up, I'd become a distributor, signing other people and earning commissions.

My sojourn there was short-lived: I knew from Scambusters.com that "banking sign-up" deals have been circulating on the Net for years. Besides not getting anything for my money, I might find myself being charged $25 monthly to "maintain my distributorship." Indeed, the money would really "never stop" -- leaving my bank account, that is. The company's "vision statement" wasn't much help, mysteriously describing an online "community that acts solely in the best financial interest of its members." Beyond that, the details became even more vague.

Time to try something else. I opened an e-mail from Dreamcatcher, expecting something more New Age. It was signed "Victoria." Victoria sounded kind of groovy: "The dreams you choose to believe in come to be. When you believe something good can happen, it does." Her pitch was girl-next-door: "Several of us are making an extra few thousand $$$$ a month and doing it in our spare time. And no products to sell, no distributor kits to buy." She threw in some vague testimonials and a promise that the "Powerful High-Tech ON-LINE System" was so "unique and powerful" it was "protected under U.S. Copyright Laws." Hmmm.

LOSING BETS. Once at her Web site, however, I had to provide reams of personal information and then wait for a callback. I moved on.

Next I turned to an e-mail from Livewelltoo. (Hey, I'd like to live well, too.) I followed orders and logged onto Ezearnfromhome.com, a luciously designed, soft-pastel montage worthy of the Lifetime Channel: photos of kids riding trikes, smiling couples holding hands, cherubic babes waving from their high-chairs. Again, I couldn't get far without providing more personal information than I wanted to share. Guess I'm living well enough.

Things were way less cozy in the world of casinos5's e-mail (instant turn-off: I don't gamble). The come-on also used scare tactics, as in: "If you don't join up you will lose thousands of dollars!"

I checked out the Web site, anyway -- replicate99.com/power_group. It was slick, vague, and worst of all, totally confusing. Page after page described "an amazing new program that has not yet been released to the general public." But what was it, this wonder that was available to lucky me? Who knows? Who could tell?

FINE-PRINT FOLLIES. Though I was repeatedly directed to create my own Website by clicking a "Free Web site!" icon, just how the riches would come my way was never explained.

Nervous, I decided to check the "Disclaimers" section. After sifting through pages of fine-print legalese, I found the following: "If the service is ordered (i.e. by clicking the order button)...provider will bill client for US $129.00 for one hour of programming...if the rent is not paid on time, provider will charge a US $15.00 late fee per billing cycle and a US $25 fee...If client disputes justified charges, provider has the right to charge a $25 administration fee."

Whoa! That's almost $200 in the click of a mouse. The idea, I think, is that once I've signed up, my Web page can lead others to make the same mistake and get hooked into paying me.

Ouch. I think I'll stick to journalism. Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan


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