Once in a Lifetime

. . . is enough to find those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities cluttering your e-mail inbox. Where do they come from? Are they for real? Why are they targeting you? Here are the answers to those questions.

If you've been using the Internet for any length of time, there's a pretty good chance that one or two or 20 e-mail messages bearing one of these teasers has landed in your in-box. The senders of these messages promise "financial freedom" or "independence from paychecks" with homebased business opportunities ranging from envelope stuffing to designing Web sites. And all that stands between you and freedom from your dull office job and mean-spirited boss is one small payment . . .

Financial freedom sounds great. But are these so-called business opportunities too good to be true?

At first, Lesley Fountain didn't think so. After running a successful medical transcription service out of her Oceanside, California, home for 20 years, Fountain went looking for a homebased business opportunity that would allow her to spend more time with her young daughter. One day, she received an unsolicited e-mail message (a.k.a. spam) offering a seminar that would train her to build lucrative e-commerce Web sites. Fountain spent nearly $3,000 to register for the seminar, only to find that the five days of training left her ill-equipped to write the complex computer code required to build a working site.

The company was more than happy to give her the extra training she needed-for an additional $2,000 paid upfront. Refused a refund, Fountain turned to the Web, where she found a number of newsgroups and message boards filled with outraged comments about business opportunity scams, some of which sounded very similar to the seminar she had attended. It was then that she realized she wasn't the first (or the last) person to be taken by unscrupulous Internet scammers. "After I got on the Net and saw some of the complaints, I realized I wasn't as stupid as I thought and that other people had suffered the same fate," says Fountain, who has since started her own anti-scam information site (http://www.scams101.com).

So why would otherwise intelligent people give thousands of dollars to unseen strangers promising wealth without work? Fountain attributes it to naiveté. "Everyone can use more money, and these scams are sold as being foolproof. Many people believe if you have a good product and do what you're supposed to do, you can't fail, and that's why they get taken in."

From comments logged on her Web site, Fountain learned that victims often lose far more than money. They also lose hope.

"When people who are looking for a genuine homebased business get scammed, they sometimes decide it's just not realistic to think they can do it-then they just give up on the whole dream," says Fountain. "A lot of people just roll over and die. I know people who went bankrupt or got divorced . . . people actually told me they didn't see any other option than suicide. It's an even bigger crime than stealing the money."

To add insult to injury, scam victims get little sympathy from family, friends or authorities. "A popular misconception," says Fountain, "is that people who get scammed don't want to work-that they just want to lay out and have money dropped on them and therefore deserve whatever they get."

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