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A startling and disturbing Web site recently rose to online notoriety. It welcomes visitors with a picture of a female, shown from behind, whom it describes as the perfect woman. She's attractive, intelligent, well dressed, and "Doesn't throw tantrums. Maybe she can even skydive." But would-be suitors have a problem. "You aren't some law-breaking psycho. You can't STALK her.
"But we can."
The site, CoincidenceDesign.com, hedges that, in lieu of stalking, "We can use a clever pretext to interview roommates and classmates from her past and colleagues and girlfriends from her present. We can send an agent to check out her relatives. We can watch her apartment and squeeze information from previous boyfriends. Then, we'll design a 'COINCIDENCE'...." Love can't be bought, but "it can be nurtured and the environment to foster it can be prepared."
Surely this was a hoax, Web-surfers thought. For one thing, the information provided to register the domain name CoincidenceDesign.com didn't check out. Though its postal address was in Dallas, the phone number belonged to a Ford dealership in Davis, California (no one at the dealership had ever heard of the site). "I just typed in a number," the Webmaster behind Coincidence Design now admits -- adding that the contact name he'd provided on the registration, Jason Bourne, was also fictitious. He took it from Robert Ludlum's book "The Bourne Identity." His real name is Nick, he says, but he declines to provide a surname. "You want me to make one up?" he offers instead.
Nick's idea has its predecessors. The search for love has been a long-standing subject of parody on the Internet. One page (www.geocities.com/walters_mission) claimed it had been created by a 17-year-old Canadian named Walter, whose female classmate had agreed to help him lose his virginity if only everyone on the Internet would access his Web page one million times. Two years ago the page added a description of victory -- which concluded with "a beautiful sunrise the next morning" -- but those details have since been removed.
Another page, started in April of 1999, purported to be the log of two friends competing to see which of them could find a sexual partner first. The contest dragged on for 19 months, until it finally reached its anticlimactic conclusion. ("Ric Won.")
One spurious Web site even pretended to auction off the eggs of fashion models -- and fooled more than a few news outlets. A Web site masquerading as that of a video-store clerk stalker even drew the attention of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
But stranger things have happened for real, online. A 25-year-old Webmistress really did offer her services as an online temptress-for-hire to catch romantic partners that were cheating online. (Though her site -- Infidelity Busters -- appears to have since been discontinued.) And a touching real-life example is provided by Rod Barnett, CEO of the St. Louis company Automation Service. He created a Web site offering a bounty of $10,000 to anyone who can find him a wife. Wednesday Barnett said that over the years his call for assistant cupids has drawn 1000 voicemail messages, 25,000 emails, and 2 million unique visitors. "I talked to hundreds, met 15 over 3 years, and dated one almost 2 years -- a Delta Flight attendant. Her sister saw me in Glamour magazine, spent days reading the Web site, and then couldn't wait any longer." To show his seriousness of commitment, he says he took the Web page down during their courtship. But now -- alas -- his quest for a bride continues.
Though Barnett's efforts have themselves been parodied by sites like paintjobforagirlfriend.com and youcrazy.com/10k4aho, Barnett's search for love appears to be completely serious. He's even set up an earnest voice-mail message about the importance of taking risks. In true geek fashion, while the enterprise seems a little ham-handed and obsessive, it's colored with a touching idealism. In the message he's left out for the world, he reminds those searching for love to keep their eye on the prize.
"Remember, it doesn't matter how you meet someone. It only matters that you do..."
Precisely because some people are, in fact, prepared to go to such great lengths to find true love, it's easy for the line between reality and fiction to blur. As it does with the mysterious Nick, at Coincidence Design. Nick claims he replaced his true phone number with a fake one when his site's popularity began climbing in December. This, too, appears to be untrue, since the registration shows that phone number was input the day the site was created, 18 months ago. But putting aside questions about Nick -- is his Web site a hoax or a legitimate business?
"It's neither," Nick says artfully. "It's what I call a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I put the Web site up it didn't really exist except as an idea in my friend Kevin's mind. But right now I have forwarded to Kevin a lot of applications." (Nick then requests that the number of applications not be published.) "Nobody pays any attention to a business that has no customers. So you have to bend the truth a little bit.... You have to tell a few white lies to get to where you want to be."
Sure enough, on Monday the site described an enterprise staffed with 17 senior agents, 63 field agents, and 2 mission supervisors. By Wednesday that information had been removed, and replaced with some vague talk about a January "reorganization." Also missing was a page claiming that 37 clients had already used the service, 23 paying the full fee of $78,000 -- with 11 marriages resulting. A page detailing the company's origins was also changed. Originally it boasted that "Senior law enforcement officials, with extensive experience on a municipal and federal level, came together to form Coincidence Design under the leadership and vision of J.B., owner of a private investigation firm." By Wednesday that page described humbler beginnings. "A private investigator with extensive experience in law enforcement formed a partnership with an established entrepreneur to form Coincidence Design."
Moreover, the most dramatic claim of all had been removed. Originally a paragraph hawking the services opened with a promise that "We can bug her phone," adding that "We can go through her mail and filter her email." Tuesday those lines had also been taken out. "That was just to get a little bit of attention," says Nick. Though he claims that his friend Kevin does have the technical ability to install a phone tap.
The changes seem to stem from the site's sudden burst of popularity in mid-December. Dori Mondon, a 28 year-old performer in Brooklyn, runs a Web-log called SaranWarp.com which links to other interesting sites on the Web. She spotted the address for Coincidence Design on a mailing list for a group of campers at the yearly Burning Man festival. An even more popular Web-log named Metafilter publicized Mondon's discovery, and soon Coincidence Design had been linked to by 80 other Web-logs, though some identified the site only with cryptic or sardonic phrases. ("Maybe she can even sky dive.")
"People felt compelled to link to it," says Mondon, "probably, because it was creepy, whether it was a hoax or not!" Last week, Nick says, Coincidence Design received 110,000 hits. It's also been discussed in nearly 100 posts on Internet newsgroups, though some with skeptical subject lines like "Rent-A-Stalker." ("For when you're too rich to do the stalking yourself...")
Meanwhile on a discussion board on Metafilter, they picked over the details. ("I find it pretty fascinating that this cabal of investigators making 8-40 grand a pop from each of their alleged 37 clients, only paid $14.95 for their domain hosting.") And eventually someone spotted a tell-tale clue. Coincidence Design credited its appearance to "Saber Works" -- a company which listed only one other client, a site called Sensation Zone. Billing itself as "the hi-tech dot.com culmination of the free love movement of the Sixties," Sensation Zone offered an even more unlikely service: a building where anonymous strangers could pair up in the dark.
"[W]hat is usually a haphazard process involving risk-taking, alcohol, and post-coital regret has been made safe, simple, and enjoyable through an emphasis on privacy, hygiene and enhancement of the tactile sense," the site boasted. A detailed description of the site's philosophy even included a floor plan of the building. ("Complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and light snacks are available.") Only when readers correctly performed a series of four mathematical equations did they arrive at the page explaining that site's true intentions. "This purpose of this Web site is actually to seek investment for The Sensation Zone Incorporated... If you and others do, the Sensation Zone will come into being sooner than you think."
Nick said he was a spokesperson for Saber Works, though he declined to call himself a Web designer (saying his true profession is "none of your business"). And he argues that Sensation Zone, like Coincidence Design, is not a hoax. "Sensation Zone is exactly what it says it is," Webmaster Nick explained Tuesday. "It's an attempt to garner investment for a business that doesn't exist."
But still more unlikely sites turned up. The tireless investigators at Metafilter discovered an earlier version of the Saber Works page which listed additional Web projects. "Hello there! I'm Ryuzo, a Japanese drunk," read the text beside a smiling head-shot. "Not just any old drunk, though -- I'm a professional drunk." The motto of Japanese Drunk, Inc. -- JapaneseDrunk.com -- was "Inebriated, Inspired, and Incorporated," and it offered its services generating clever names for corporate products.
Why would a company trust its naming requirements to a man whose primary qualifications appeared to be his Japanese nationality and penchant for drink? "Well, for one thing, we Japanese are surprisingly good at thinking up original names," the site explains, "maybe because our English is bad and we are unfettered by the restraint of having to use the language correctly." (For an automobile manufacturer, "Ryuzo" suggests the slogan "We build unleashability.") Like the earlier sites, there's a pitch for money. "I'm a simple guy," Ryuzo writes. "All I need to be happy is French cognac and an excuse to drink it, in the form of naming work. So my rates are reasonable...."
Webmaster Nick denies that Japanese Drunk is a parody, saying he provides the naming services himself. (Though "The picture is artistic license, it's not me.") He also claims he actually has been hired to name some products, though characteristically, he then refuses to provide additional details. "I have changed some names, it's mostly true." Which part is true? "I can't tell you that."
And then there's the Clones-R-Us site. "Ordering a clone has never been easier!" the site promises, offering "unbeatable prices" and describing the operation in exhaustive detail. It even cites gene-licensing agreements for clones of beauty queens from Greece, India, Japan, Zaire, as well as specific celebrities like Cindy Crawford ($79,999) and "early Michael Jackson" ($299). There's an order form -- Mastercard or Visa? -- along with a check-box where prospective buyers must acknowledge an awareness of the risks. "Yes, I know that Dream Technologies International is not responsible if the clone turns into a grossly overweight, anti-social, undisciplined slob."
But this Web page identified itself as a parody from the very beginning, Nick argues. "As you've hopefully realized, this site is a spoof site," one page advises, "which simulates one possible ramification from advances in cloning science..." Elsewhere, it adds that "DreamTech attorneys cannot be held liable for any physical or mental anguish which may or may not have been caused by reading legal documentation in tiny typeface."
Nick protests that his serious business ventures are being tarnished by being lumped together with spoof sites. He asks that no disrespect be directed to a final Saber Works Web site, which described a plan to address needs for start-up capital in the impoverished Philippines. ("It's very simple," the site explained. "When you come to the cockfight, you hand over your money and our roaming bank officer puts it in a bank account in your name...") Yes, he admits, the site about cloning was a parody. And "You can dis Japanese Drunk too, that's not been getting much business. Since the recession...."
Why so serious about Coincidence Design? One possible explanation is that its services are advertised at a whopping $78,000 a pop, and Nick now claims he's weeding through the responses for serious offers. "I'm surprised a business such as this doesn't exist already," he says, adding that he's working on "fulfillment capabilities." The site already includes a Help Wanted ad that asks "Are you a licensed and experienced private investigator? If so, why not work with us, on a free-lance basis..."
And since curious surfers have been following the page's links to the Saber Works page, which leads to the Sensation Zone page, Nick says he genuinely hopes the site could generate a critical mass of investors.
And if that doesn't pan out, Nick says -- he's working on some new Web sites.
David Cassel is a freelance writer who is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.