CYBERSHOCK: My Research Shows

Ignoring the fine print and a few carefully chosen qualifiers, I made half a million bucks opening my mail last month. I didn't win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes or any of its kin -- those kind of offers come by snail mail -- no, I made my theoretical fortune opening my email. "We teach people how to make $5,000 in cash weekly from their home!" said one pitch. "WE EARNED $16,800 OUR 1ST WEEK!!!!!!!," exclaimed another. And just in case I didn't know what to do with all this effortlessly accumulated wealth, there were plenty of offers about how to spend my money.I could buy an original AB XTC Cross Training Cruncher (TM) -- as seen on TV, no less -- for a mere $39.95. Marcus wanted to scan my photographs for five bucks a shot and Laura wanted to turn my signature into a TrueType font for a slightly heftier $28.95. Terri graciously volunteered to sell me "the best tasting and most advanced NATURAL COLLOIDAL MINERAL supplement available" and Art wanted to sell me DHEA, "the closest thing to the fountain of youth."If money and good health proved to have too great an aphrodisiac effect on me and the people I came in contact with, I could also order condoms in bulk. A box of 36 Trojan Ribbed Lubricated -- those are the ones with the reservoir tip, silicon lubricant, golden color, and ribbed texture -- was only $19. And if my computer was having trouble handling the influx of email, I could order another eight megabytes of memory for $112. Nearly all of these mass emailing contained some variation of the phrase, "Excuse the interruption, but our research shows that you might be interested in. ..." Even the one offering hand-sewn catnip toys. Never mind that I don't have a pet and if I did, I'd get a dog. I'm allergic to cats. I've always hated junk mail that shows up courtesy of the United States Postal Service. This sudden inundation over the Internet, though, is relatively new -- it's only become a major hassle for me in the past couple months. I admit I'm a sitting duck because for some of my correspondence I use America Online. Anyone user can search the member roster and come up with my address, and clearly AOL is the richest vein to plunder if you're mining for email addresses. But these nasty commercial messages have found their way to more obscure mail boxes, including my work address, which I never publicize and which sits on a UNIX server with lots of aggressive daemons that discourage outsiders from poking around. The truth is no one is safe. Someone recently told me a sneaky way to grab user names from the supposedly secure server at work, and I'm convinced people are sending software robots out to collect addresses from Web pages. In some ways these email messages are less vile than traditional junk mail. Although they add to Internet congestion, they don't consumer dead trees and they don't need to be driven around in internal combustion vehicles. They are far easier to get rid of than paper missives and they generate to garbage. In other ways, though, E-junk is more insidious that paper junk mail. For one thing, it's less expensive. Mass emailers don't have to pay printing costs (dead trees are expensive), they don't have to pay a mailing house, they don't have to pay postage. They also don't have to buy mailing lists, although that's easy enough to do -- one of the pitches I got last month was from a company that offered to sell 20 million addresses for $359. Although we all like to cheer how democratic, decentralized and affordable the Internet is, the financial threshold for entering the mass mailing business is now extremely low. Any Tom, Dick and Harriet can get into the act, no matter how inexpensive their products. Which brings me to another complaint. Because of the low cost threshold, a lot of E-junk comes from people pushing residual incomes schemes, legal variations on the pyramid scheme. You sell something and you also recruit other sellers. You get a cut from what you sell, from what your recruits sell, and from what your recruits' recruits and their recruits sell. Companies don't need a marketing department when they can recruit lost of hungry people at the grass roots to push their product for a tiny commission.I'm not completely adverse to residual income schemes. Someone who gets in early enough and spends enough time marketing and recruiting can make money -- although few do. But suddenly the Internet is full of untrained amateurs with no formal company affiliation selling products for companies nobody knows. The salesperson could be anyone hiding behind a false name and cryptic handle, and an unethical company's true identity can be just as elusive. The potential for scams is alarming.Unfortunately, the E-junk problem will only get worse, not to mention sleazier, and there's no national association you can write to get your name of Mom and Pop Junkmailer's list. So practice hitting that delete key and start looking for a good mail reader that can filter any electronic message that contains the phrase "our research indicates."

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