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By Charles Lam
art by bob aulJunk e-mail, like news of celebrity deaths, seems to travel in cycles. A pyramid scheme or a chain letter might spread over the Internet like a fungus and then gradually die away, only to reappear a few months or a few years later, in a slightly different form, to sucker a whole new generation of victims. Take the umpteen forward-this-e-mail-and-win messages, which have promised gullible Netizens goodies from Microsoft, Nike, Disney, the Gap, IBM, Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy, Honda, Bath & Body Works and probably God.
Last month, the latest cycle began for one hoax that's been around for at least a decade—and may have even started in Orange County.
A few days ago, I received an e-mail with the cryptic heading "<(©¯©)> People in the Know, Know This!" The message contained therein purported to be from a shadowy bunch identified only as the World Currency Cartel.
The World Currency Cartel (henceforth identified as the WCC) is a group of millionaires who have discovered the secret to effortlessly amassing huge gobs of wealth, and for the paltry price of $25, they're willing to share that secret with you and me.
"For the first time and for a very short period of time, WORLD CURRENCY CARTEL will instruct a LIMITED number of people worldwide on 'HOW TO CONVERT $25 INTO ONE HUNDRED OF LEGAL CURRENCY,'" the e-mail promises. "For as long as the global financial community continues to use different currencies with varying exchange rates, the 'SECRET FLAW' will exist."
All you had to do was fax them a copy of a check for $25, and the key to unlimited wealth would be yours. And just in case you were still hesitant, the spammer also included a number of laudatory quotations from respected media organizations, including the New York Times and the NBC Nightly News—although a spokeswoman for the Times told me her paper denied all responsibility for the quotation and added that "our lawyers are looking into it."
Online debunkers were quick to pounce. The MMF Hall of Humiliation (ga.to/mmf), a Web site specializing in Make Money Fast schemes (named after the infamous get-rich-quick spam that started it all), pointed out that the problem with the above claim was that "missing from the above sentence is the word 'Dollars' after 'One Hundred.'"
"If you're lucky, when you send them your money, you get back 100 units of currency from some faraway land where they still sell leaded gasoline and the water may or may not be drinkable—perhaps from a backward, Third World country like Suriname or Canada," the site adds. "You might get 100 Burundian francs, which have a total value of about 25 cents."
The WCC's plan, in fact, bears a striking resemblance to envelope-stuffing schemes, which have been advertised in newspaper classifieds for years. In your basic envelope-stuffing plan, you answer an ad that promises you unlimited amounts of money from stuffing fliers into envelopes at home. When you send in your $1 (or $2, or $5), you get back a set of instructions that tells you to place the same ad in a newspaper and stuff your envelopes with a copy of the same set of instructions when a new round of suckers sends you their $1, or $2, or $5. See the beauty of it? The scammees become the scammers, and each individual who gets taken loses such a small amount of money that it's usually not worth complaining about.
Reportedly, the WCC works the same way; some victims have reported receiving 100 units of worthless foreign currency and instructions on how to get rich by pulling the same flimflam on others. Others got nothing for their money.
"The typical lure of these kinds of e-mails is that you're going to make a lot of money for very little effort and only have to spend a small amount of money to get the secret," said Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband, David, runs the fabulous Urban Legends Reference Pages (www.snopes.com). (You can see the Mikkelsons' analysis of the WCC message at www.snopes.com/info/current.htm.) "People always fail to stop and think, if the person had a way to make unlimited amounts of money, why wouldn't he just be out there making it? Why would he bother selling his secret for $25?"
Efficient as the Net debunkers efforts' are, one would like to think they'd be unnecessary: the WCC had already been denounced as a scam even before this latest outbreak of messages.
By The Orange County Register.
"Postal authorities are investigating the Procurement Center, whose advertising, they say, includes made-up newspaper clippings that detail how the government is trying to shut down the company to save the banking system," the April 25, 1990, Reg story reads. "A sister business, the World Currency Cartel, uses apparently bogus references from The Wall Street Journal, Barron's and others attesting to its plan for making big money. . . . Authorities estimate the two businesses have pulled in more than $1 million from investors . . . at $25 or $33 a pop."
The Better Business Bureau reported at the time that some customers who fell for the pitch (sent by snail mail, rather than online) got back 100 Portuguese escudos (worth less than $1); others got nothing.