Cyberbegging: Asking the Public to Pay the Bills


Jan. 19, 2007 — -- For 10 years, Dustin Diamond was America's most popular and beloved nerd.

Playing the character Screech on the hit Saturday morning sitcom "Saved by the Bell," he enjoyed childhood celebrity and a healthy Hollywood income.

"We were making great money for kids," Diamond said.

But, it has now been nine years since "Saved by the Bell" wrapped its last episode, and a lot has changed for Diamond, both professionally and financially. Amazingly, after earning much more money than most Americans could expect to take home in a lifetime, he had little to show for it.

Diamond says his parents lived lavishly from his earnings, so much so that in 2001 he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

"They had a kid that was bringing home the bacon," he said. "[My father] got caught up in the gravy train of the kids making money, and he was the dad and he could spend it, and live in … the good life. A lot of the money that I made … is now gone, and I didn't really get a say over that."

After filing for bankruptcy, Diamond moved from his Hollywood home to a modest house in Wisconsin. After getting caught up in what he says was a shady real estate deal, Diamond was left owing $250,000, with only 30 days to pay it back.

Diamond didn't have the money, and under threats of foreclosure and having lost so much of his previous earnings, he came up with an idea. Diamond went online to plead his case, and asked his fans for help. He created a Web site called Save Screech's House, and asked his fans to buy T-shirts to support his cause.

"I said, 'You know what? I'm going to sell this shirt, and I'm going to tell the public where this money is going if not just to save the house, I'll use the money to fight this guy off in court because this is wrong.' … We sold about 22,000 shirts," he said.

Diamond is a small part of a new phenomenon that's swept the Internet. Asking strangers online to help pay back debts is known as cyberbegging, or E-panhandling, and it is the brainchild of 30-year-old Karyn Bosnak.

A Chicago native, Bosnak migrated to New York in 2000, immediately becoming a "Sex and the City" style shopaholic. After racking up more than $20,000 in credit card debt from designer handbags and expensive clothes, she decided to ask the public to help her pay the bills.

In a moment of online inspiration, Bosnak created, asking anyone who visited her Web site to help chop down her debt, one dollar at a time. It worked.

Bosnak says she received about $13,000 of "cold, hard cash" in online donations. Many others have followed in her footsteps, begging for money for practically anything -- from breast enhancement to money for a divorce. The majority of these attempts are fruitless, but not all of them.

Cyberbegging is not without its detractors. Jason Ryan Dorsey, a financial expert and author of "My Reality Check Bounced," says that cyberbegging is an ill-advised escape from the responsibility of debt.

Regardless of long-term effects, Internet begging is likely to warrant the same treatment as real begging: indifference from some, and a little pocket change from others.

"People are looking for the easy way out," he said. "Especially 20-somethings who are used to not taking responsibility for their actions. Why not try to get somebody else to pay off your debt?"

Bosnak disagrees.

"I did something creative to get myself out of debt," Bosnak said. "I didn't file for bankruptcy. I didn't crawl home to mommy and daddy. Yes, I asked for help from the general public, but I worked for that help. … I don't think it's shameful. I think it's creative."

So where is Diamond today?

He was able to save, and successfully remortgage, his house in Wisconsin.

In addition to the money he made through his Web site, Diamond now earns profits from a pornographic DVD in which he serves as a cameraman and also co-stars with two females. Diamond says that the tape was intended as a joke among friends, but was subsequently leaked to the public.

To protect his interests, Diamond says he decided to sign with the Red Light District, pornographic film distributors.

After years of seeing his hard-earned cash frittered away, Diamond is determined that this performance will pay dividends, even if it's a long way from the wholesome character that first made him famous.

And Diamond went back to his roots when it came to giving his film a title. It's called "Screeeched."