Can this spam make me rich?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
April 11 2003 3:36 PM

Spam I Am

I try an Internet get-rich-quick scheme.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

I have always been tempted by offers promising that my laziness and lack of skill are the perfect qualifications for making lots of money in my spare time. For "Human Guinea Pig," a column in which I explore intriguing, sometimes idiotic parts of life everyone wants someone else to check out for them, I decided to answer one of these e-mail solicitations and get rich, quick.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. You can reach her at prudence@slate.com.

There were so many spams to choose from. One promised I could make $150 an hour giving my opinion. Since I sit at my desk and mumble it for free to my dog, this sounded unlikely. Then there was the classic—stuffing envelopes. But career advice books always tell you to push the envelope, not stuff it. Instead, I got sucked in by e-mail from a legitimate-sounding, techie outfit called Refund Recovery. The premise behind it is that both UPS and FedEx promise on-time delivery but don't always achieve it. For $77 plus $11 shipping and handling, I would get the software that would allow me to track late deliveries, recover the refund, and split the money with my clients. This would result in a "$50K a year income stream" for working less than 10 hours a week from home.

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The site was filled with testimonials from people who quit their jobs to recover refunds—a nurse, a teacher, a "staffing assistant." George Milovic, a college student from Dallas offered: "It works, it really works, I'm actually making money working from home! I don't mean to sound negative, I know this is supposed to be a testimonial, but I didn't think it would work for me, I mean I hoped it would, but I really didn't believe it would." I looked up George's phone number in Yahoo! so I could get advice on launching my own career in refund recovery, but I was unable to find a George Milovic listed anywhere in the United States. He's probably living on a yacht in Monte Carlo.

A few days after I placed my order, two CDs arrived. (Actual cost of shipping via the U.S. Postal Service: $1.65.) I was terrified that loading the CDs would cause my computer to actually melt like the Wicked Witch, but fortunately I did not need to use the software until I received shipping data from customers. A curt enclosure directed me to begin my work with the company's online training manual. There I encountered the $50,000 dam in my $50,000 income stream. I would have to find my own clients.

The anonymous writers of the training manual recognized and dispelled any discouragement resulting from this discovery: "If I ask someone for their business and they say no will my head explode[?] … Answer—Absolutely NOT." They advised four methods for getting clients: sending letters, fax blasting, hiring a sales force, or telemarketing.

They acknowledged letters were a loser but advised, "Hand writing the envelopes, no return address, and oversized stamps will increase your chance of having your letter read." I thought that would increase my chance of having my letter turned over to the authorities for possible anthrax contamination. I don't know how to program my fax machine, so a fax blast was out. Hiring a sales force had a certain appeal. I imagined designing fetching uniforms and having company rallies where we shouted our slogan: "If they're not on time, we make a dime!" But then I realized my employees would be bugging me about their 401(k)s and on-site child care, so I gave up on that idea. That left making phone calls.

In one paragraph the manual suggested—rather cruelly—that after 100 phone calls, only one company might sign up: "Ninety-nine people rejected you and your service, get used to it." Three paragraphs later a more ominous estimate appeared: "The math is in your favor—if one out of 1000 say [sic] yes, you will be successful. … Now go get rejected and call me when you hear yes and I promise you, you will only remember the yes and none of the No's." (I tried calling in anticipation of my good news, but the only phone number listed in any of the Refund Recovery materials was out of order.)

So, I got to work. The Refund Recovery people suggested my best prospects were law firms, travel agencies, and catalogs. I compiled a list of law firms and travel agencies from the Yellow Pages, and selected the catalog companies from catalogs that came to the house.

I called the first law firm and asked for the shipping manager, as the training manual recommended.

"We don't have one," the receptionist said.