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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There is a reason it always sounds to good to be true

By Dick Hirsch

Yes, it was just the other day that I received yet another one of those big money e-mails from Nigeria. How do they find me? How much do they know about me? Do they know something that I don’t know?

Do I open those messages? Sometimes. Maybe they know that I sometimes open their e-mails and perhaps that encourages them to write me again, or to pass my name and address along to other correspondents in Nigeria. Yes, sometimes I do open them and other times I report them as spam or drag them to the trash. It all depends on how busy I am and how high my level of curiosity is at that moment.

The stories usually follow a similar pattern, reporting a few details about the writer’s huge and unexpected inheritance and the immediate need to get the money to an offshore bank account in a stable economy and to avoid taxation. Then there was the one about the cocoa brokerage and the opportunities connected to the rising and sometimes fluctuating market for cocoa beans.

Years ago those unexpected letters occasionally drifted in by airmail, typed on that onionskin paper. Later they were transmitted as faxes. Then the process evolved to e-mail, which, of course, is by far the simplest and least expensive manner in which to target the largest audience, some of whom will likely prove to be gullible. The letter writers have generated considerable international attention for Nigeria and it hasn’t been what would qualify as favorable publicity for the country. Nigeria is in west Africa, and is bordered by Chad, Niger and Ghana.

Although most of such correspondence sent in my direction originates in Nigeria, in fairness I should give Ireland a mention. While most of the Nigerian stories focus on unexpected wealth the writer is supposedly poised to share with a partner, the Irish continue to be fascinated by the lottery or the sweepstakes. With a winning ticket in hand, a generous ticket holder writes in the strictest confidence that he is eager to share the winnings with a citizen of another country, thus enabling both parties to avoid taxation.

Ireland has always possessed a sweepstakes mystique, based on the fabled Irish Sweepstakes which started in 1930 and was discontinued in 1987. The Sweepstakes was a legitimate undertaking, with the proceeds to be used to build hospitals in Ireland. During all those years when lotteries were illegal in the US, tickets on the Irish Sweepstakes held considerable fascination, especially since they were available only through shadowy sources. Buyers had to beware because there were always counterfeit tickets in circulation. I actually knew a man, Ed Lewis, who won $110,000 in the Irish Sweepstakes, which was big money in the pre-lottery days. He retired soon after.

The e-mails from Nigeria and Ireland are mentioned merely as examples of the type of communications that are so much a part of the information age, bombarding people at home and office with tantalizing proposals.

Hardly a week passes without some offer promising rewards that seem too attractive to ignore. In my mind they trigger memories of advice heard years ago: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Just this morning, as this was being written, I received a fax offering me a special price on a five day package trip to Cancun for a ridiculously low price, all inclusive: food and drink 24/7.

The number of relevant faxes sent and received has dwindled with the emergence of e-mail as a more facile means of contact. The decline of the fax machine was abrupt. One day it was a technological marvel, speeding communications, and replacing couriers and letters, quickly becoming an essential appliance in every business office. It is still necessary to have one, but most of the faxed pages I now receive are unsolicited sales pitches promoting trips to places like Acapulco or Paradise Island, advocating certain health insurance plans from companies no one has ever heard about, proclaiming exclusive “insider” investment news featuring low-priced stocks, or suggesting sources for low fee health insurance, inexpensive prescription drugs, “certified” home repairs or basement waterproofing.

Am I on some kind of universal sucker list? Yes, that must be it. At some point in my career did I make a decision that marked me as a yokel? Or are we all considered potential yokels in a world where there are so many easy ways to seduce the naive?


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