Creative Consumer: Exposing the Oprah Letter Scam

YOU chose this week's topic. Well, one of you did. M.B. wrote in from Romeo, Mich. I always welcome consumer questions from viewers. It keeps me in touch with what's happening in the consumer world and assures that I'm writing about topics of real meaning to folks. So, thank you, M.B. And I hope the rest of you will write to me when there's a consumer question on your mind.

Click here to ask Eli.

Question: [Eli:]I received a letter in the mail the other day that I would like some help with. I will paste the letter so that you can read it. If it is legal and legitimate, I would like try it, but I wanted to do my homework before doing anything. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

"THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW AND ABC'S 20/20 INVESTIGATION TEAM PROVED IT COULD BE DONE!!

PROVEN BY VARIOUS HIGHLY RESPECTED U.S. TV AND RADIO PROGRAMS AS BEING 100 PERCENT LEGAL, FEASIBLE AND TRUE. A 15-YEAR-OLD BOY TRIED IT AND IN 5 WEEKS HE MADE $71,000!

THIS IS NOT A CHAIN LETTER!! THIS IS A PERFECTLY LEGAL MONEYMAKING OPPORTUNITY."

Six months ago I received this letter and ignored it. Five more came within a period of time and I ignored them also. I was tempted, but was convinced it would not work. After three weeks of deliberating, I decided to give it a try, not expecting much. Two weeks went by and nothing happened. The fourth was unbelievable! I ended up with over $400,000. For the first time in years, I am debt free. I am doing it again, only this time, starting with 500 names. I strongly recommend that you follow the instructions exactly as outlined in this letter. P.S. When your money comes in, give 10 percent to charity with good spirit and share your good fortune.

1. Immediately send $1 with a note that says "Please add me to your mailing list" to each of the six names listed below.

2. Remove the #1 person's name; add your name to the #6 position. An easy way to do this is just retype the list — #1 person gone, you at the #6 position, #1 person in #2 position, etc. Then paste that list on top of the one here.

3. After completing items 1 and 2, photocopy and print 200 copies of this entire letter?

How can it be possible to make $800,000 in 90 days? Here is the way it works. At a conservative rate of response, assume for example you get a 7.5 percent return rate.

You send out 200 letters and 15 people respond, sending you $1 — $15 Those 15 send 200 letters and 225 people respond, sending you $1 — $225 Those 225 send 200 letters and 3,375 people respond with $1 — $3,375 Those 3,375 send 200 letters, 50,625 people respond with $1 — $50,625 Those 50,625 send 200 letters, 759,375 people respond with $1 — $759,375 Total Response $813,615

Be honest and this will work well for everyone! Thank you and have a wonderful Life."

M.B. Romeo, Mich.

Answer:

Two things about this letter have me wondering whether to laugh or scream.

"THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW AND ABC'S 20/20 INVESTIGATION TEAM PROVED IT COULD BE DONE!!"

First off, my OWN network's name has been misused to try to make this thing look legitimate. The crooks watch TV too. And they know that shows like ABC's 20/20 often expose scams. So they've attempted a preemptive strike, claiming that ABC and 20/20 endorse their moneymaking system. Trust me. We don't. But con artists are getting more and more clever this way. Whenever a deal seems too good to be true and invokes the name of somebody famous, proceed with caution and skepticism!

"… THIS IS NOT A CHAIN LETTER!! THIS IS A PERFECTLY LEGAL MONEYMAKING OPPORTUNITY."

This is the other trend I've been seeing a lot lately in bogus e-mails and letters: denial. Another preemptive strike. Just in case you're worrying that this sounds like a chain letter, the crooks state up front that it's not. But, of course it is.

A chain letter is the most basic form of pyramid scheme. You receive a letter (or e-mail) containing a list of names. You're asked to send a dollar to the name at the top of the list. Then you're supposed to cross that name off, add your own name to the bottom of the list and send the letter to 10 friends.

Theoretically, if your friends do their part and pass the letter (and cash) along, eventually your name will be at the top of the list and you'll receive all sorts of money from strangers. Baloney! First of all, these chains usually break after just a couple of rounds. Secondly, they are just transfer schemes to move money from the bottom to the top of the pyramid. And third, they're illegal! Theoretically, you could be prosecuted for participating.

I've included most of the letter M.B. received, because the scam language is often very similar. Get to know the tone and claims of these obnoxious chain letters so you can avoid them. I suspect we will only see more of this sort of thing as the economy struggles to find its footing.