What you see may not be what you get
One curious soul decides to patronize her spammers
By Denise Flaim
Newsday Staff Writer
Originally published July 7, 2003
NEW YORK -- Spam, I am.
We all get spam, those unsolicited e-mail missives with neon-light subject lines like "Put cash in your pocket!" and "FIRE your boss!" They hawk Viagra, mortgage quotes, printer cartridges and -- the ultimate paradox -- spam-blocking software.
Reading spam in passing is one thing. But answering it, and putting your credit card on the line, is something else entirely.
After all, everything we have ever learned about the Internet compels us to hit the delete key and move on. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the "member of the Nigerian petroleum ministry" who wants direct access to your bank account is up to no good -- even if he did sign it "Yours faithfully."
But is all spam a scam? What would happen, I wondered, if I followed spam to the end of the line? If I actually ordered some of this merchandise? If I tried to make contact with the human at the other end of the spam trail?
My first step was to actually answer a spam e-mail -- more of a hurdle than one would think. Where is the justice in opening an e-mail message titled "Unhappy with your penis? We have the solution!" and having it simply lead nowhere? If I had a buck for every "The requested URL could not be retrieved" message on my browser, I could keep myself in iced Starbucks Sumatra for the rest of the summer
Resigned to reading my spam more carefully, I embarked on my next acquisition, from www.CouponClaimCenter.com. Admittedly, the e-mail message's premise sounded too good to be true: "Reward merchandise in excess of $400,000 has been approved for release from the Secured Vault Area."
To earn my piece of the pie, which could be worth as much as $5,000, all I needed to do was order something, anything. Like a golfer's pocket tool set. Or a calorie-counting jump rope. Or a vibrating shower sponge ball, which, alas, was sold out.
In the end, I settled on the "Incredible Super-Grip Grabber," for a whopping $14.
My transaction complete, I was hoping to find out what my vault-secured reward would be. But instead, I was thrust into a live chat with a chipper "online agent" named Jennie.
"Hi there! As a valued customer of NationalRewardCenter.com, you qualify for a special offer today . . ." she typed. "We'll send you a certificate book worth up to $600 in grocery coupons along with a FREE 30-day trial membership to the QuestSavers program ... "
Uh, Jennie, I'm a newspaper reporter and I really want to find out what my reward is.
Suddenly, Jennie was hitting her backspace key. "OK, no problem ... I will note that you have declined the offer. Thank you for your time, and for visiting us at NationalRewardCenter.com ... We appreciate your business!"
Wait, wait, Jennie ... Jennie? What about my free reward?
Jennie didn't have any information on that, but she did give me an e-mail address and a phone number.
Opting instead for suspense, I waited until my gripper arrived. It did, accompanied by a CD visor.
A customer-service rep at the number Jennie gave me assured me that the CD visor was indeed my reward. In fact, she said helpfully, I could have clicked on "See Details" -- "that way you can see what your reward code gets you before you push 'Order.'"
What about the vault? Was there actually such a place?
"Well," she answered gently, "not really, literally."
At least the merchandise NationalRewardCenter.com was selling was tangible. Most of my spams peddled amorphous products or services. Consider, for example, the "Better than a Loan" e-mail from Yambo Financials in Surrey, England. It led me to a Web address comprising mostly numbers that explained if I met certain "unusual requirements" -- I had to be older than 18, with a net worth of less than $250,000 -- I might qualify for up to $156,000 in free government grants.
"Common everyday people are getting these funds on a daily basis," the site said, adding that I'd never have to repay it. "It seems hard to believe, but it's the absolute truth."
I wouldn't need a credit or employment check, or a co-signer, or an income verification, or any collateral. It didn't matter what my education level was. "But, most initiatives do require that you have a valid Social Security Number for tax purposes," the Web site noted.
How do I apply to the free grant program? "I would love to do this absolutely free for everyone who needs this money, but I just can't afford to do that," the site explained. So I would have to provide "a nominal fee of just $40," which would be refunded if I didn't qualify.
It sounded like I needed to talk to someone before I handed over my Social. So I called the customer-service number in New York. "Actually this is just an answering service for Yambo Financials," explained the person on the other end. "We're just a call center."
Did they have a phone number for Yambo?
"I have the address of their main headquarters in Gainesville, Florida."
That address turned out to be an apartment whose phone number was registered to five people with the same Russian-sounding last name.
I called and asked for the person who handles the grant giveaways.
"What?" said the sleepy female voice that answered.
The grant giveaway? The free money from the government?
"Oh, that must be Anton."
I left a number, but Anton never returned any of my calls.
Link to full Newsday article at the Baltimore Sun
The Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO) collates information and evidence on entities with a history of spamming or providing spam services, and entities affiliated or otherwise connected with them, for the purpose of assisting ISP Abuse Desks and Law Enforcement Agencies.