By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Robert Smith is an addict, his drug of choice compact discs, his source Columbia House, the popular mail-order and Internet "club." By his own reckoning, Smith has used the Internet to steal hundreds of CDs from the company.
A few years ago, would-be scammers had fewer opportunities to defraud such retailers—they had to actually go to the trouble of finding the nearly ubiquitous magazine mail-in cards offering vast numbers of CDs for free, fill out a card, and drop it in the mail. And then they waited—four to six weeks, eight to 12 weeks, or longer. But since Columbia House and rival BMG went online in the late '90s, it has been a whole lot easier to reduce the time and energy it takes to steal big numbers of CDs. The companies vastly expanded their catalogs, allowed instant membership application and ordering, and provided speedier delivery.
Smith, 22, admits his secret as if a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I'm addicted to music," said Smith (not his real name), "and I don't have enough money to buy it all."
Although he estimates he has ripped off more than 300 CDs from Columbia House, he claims the firm has never tried to contact him.
Smith orders online at www.columbiahouse.com. The website offers 12 introductory discs for free—unspecified "shipping and handling" charges are extra. When the introductory 12-CD shipment arrives, Smith ignores the invoice. When the company sends a regular-mail reminder about the missing payment, "you just say you never received the CDs, and they re-send them. When those arrive, you send them back, saying you don't want to join, and that's it. You get 12 free CDs."
Columbia House spokeswoman Mary Silverton said the 45-year-old company has "policies" to encourage payment. But the Terre Haute, Indiana-based subsidiary of media giants AOL/Time Warner and Sony remains tight-lipped about precisely what it can do when it discovers Net users have scammed the firm.
According to United States Code, mail fraud—even when conducted over the Net—is a federal offense. If convicted, Smith could face a maximum of five years in prison and a hefty fine.
Smith has given up his life of crime, but not because he was afraid of being caught. Rather than using securer options such as Federal Express or UPS, Columbia House and others like it keep shipping costs down by using the United States Postal Service. Here lies the weak link. "The [U.S. Postal Service] is unreliable," said Smith. "They have no way of proving that you're actually picking up the CDs. Anybody can fill out those forms."
Smith said he uses aliases, registers fake e-mail addresses and waits several weeks between orders. Instead of using the name his parents gave him, Smith said he uses rock stars' names, such as Shirley Manson of the band Garbage or Brian Warner, also known as Marilyn Manson.
Like Smith, Yoshihiro Tojiri (not his real name) and an accomplice rip off CDs, though they prefer BMG (www.bmgmusicservice.com). "We signed up for [an anonymous e-mail] account and went into the BMG website, found 15 CDs that looked semi-interesting, and signed up just as we would as a BMG customer. Four weeks later, a package showed up. I took out all the CDs [and] threw the packaging and the bill away."
Tojiri said he received snail mail from BMG saying they had not received his payment. He contacted the company with the enclosed reply card, claiming he had not received the discs. He told them he did not want to wait another month for delivery and wanted out of the agreement.
"Within a matter of five days, I got a post card [from BMG] that said, 'We are sorry for any inconvenience. . . . You have been dropped from our club.'"
Tojiri said he is well aware that what he is doing "is against the law because it is basically mail fraud." Like Smith, he's not afraid of being caught by an organization that boasts millions of "members."
"Even if they did know that you had scammed them for their CDs, they would also have to find the other 3-odd million subscribers who have been doing this type of thing," said Tojiri, who noted that taking all of those people to court would cost a lot of money.
The plain truth is that the days of music clubs like Columbia House and BMG may be numbered. Many Net music providers require instant payment—instead of buy-now-pay-later "memberships" —and deliver either over the Net (MP3.com) or via FedEx (Amazon.com).
Smith describes himself as "a recovering Columbia House scammer."
Not Tojiri. "I'll be doing it again soon," he says. "There are some CDs that I want, so I figure, why not?"