I’ve enclosed the brochure of a company calling itself “Business Research, Inc.,” which purports to offer easy money for stuffing envelopes for them–$1.40 per envelope. Supposedly you can “easily mail 300 a week by working one or two hours daily,” all in the comfort of your home. Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? What do you know about these places? Do they just pocket the $20 “registration fees” of gullible housewives and disappear from the planet? If so, why doesn’t anyone do something about it? –Elisa Gulch, Baltimore, Maryland

Goodness, Elisa, where is our faith in our fellow man? Your attitude is going to prevent you from cashing in on many golden opportunities–most of them involving swampland in Florida. The fact is, envelope-stuffing offers, also known as “work-at-home” schemes, are almost always fraudulent. In 1979 the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Washington looked at 55 work-at-home ads and found every single one misleading.

Work-at-home frauds never pay you simply to stuff envelopes. Instead you pay $20 or whatever and in return they tell you to place ads of your own getting other suckers to send you money (usually, but see below). Then those suckers find other suckers, till eventually everybody in the world has ripped off everybody else. This kind of thing is also called a “pyramid” scam, since it depends for its success on an ever-widening pool of victims.

Just to show you how this works, and save you a couple bucks besides, Cecil mailed $20 to the aforementioned Business Research, which has its offices in Inglewood, California. (Right now, that is. Businesses of this type are prone to sudden changes of address.) What I got were some fliers plus some instructions telling me to place an ad in a weekly newspaper offering free details on “selling information by mail.” The respondents would mail me a self-addressed stamped envelope, into which I was supposed to stuff the fliers. Then I was to send all the envelopes to Business Research, which supposedly would pay me $1.40 per envelope. Naturally, I would have to pay for the ads and hope that (1) I got enough response to cover my costs, and (2) Business Research actually paid me. Further complicating things would be the fact that most (ahem) reputable papers won’t run such ads.

Placing ads was a little more than I was prepared to do for the sake of participatory journalism, but I was intrigued by the flier I was supposed to stuff. For $10 it offered “70 Money Making Reports,” which I was free to reproduce and sell to people by mail order using classified ads. (You see how this racket perpetuates itself indefinitely.) I sent off ten more bucks and got a grand total of six sheets covered with tiny print on both sides. Each “report” consisted of a single paragraph proposing some stunt ranging from the simpleminded to the possibly illegal. Here’s a typical one: “AMAZING PROSPERITY PLAN. Make extra money by running the following ad over your name: ‘AMAZING PROSPERITY PLAN . . . Pays eight ways–up to 16. All profit. Rush $1.00 for your copy today.’ Fill orders with a copy of this same plan.” The whole thing is so ridiculous, after a while you just have to laugh.

The beauty of these schemes is that the amount each pigeon loses is small, so nobody’s going to sue you. And there’s a virtually limitless supply of pigeons. One work-at-home promoter snookered 25,000 people; another bagged 9,800. Since there are thousands of hustlers trying to pull the same con, the chances of actually getting prosecuted are slim. Instead the U.S. Postal Service and various state consumer protection agencies will usually try to get you to knock it off voluntarily. Then again, they may decide to make an example of you and nail you for mail fraud or other violations.

Cecil was interested to learn that the operator of Business Research, Mel Hayes, had signed a consent agreement in August following an investigation by postal authorities. I was interested to learn this mainly because I got my stuff from BR in October. Naturally, I notified the postal inspectors. I am always eager to help my fellow citizens be virtuous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.