My E-mail assures me I can make thousands of dollars a month without ever changing out of my pajamas. In these trying economic times I'd be foolish not to try ...

They show up every day, as predictable as the New York Times. Stacked in my E-mailbox with sender IDs that resemble the alphanumeric mishmash of comic-strip profanity, they tempt me with the chance to escape straitjacketing hours and a brutish commute and instead "BE YOUR OWN BOSS," "EARN $$$ FROM HOME NEXT WEEK," and embark on "THE HOTTEST AND EASIEST HOME BUSINESS EVER!!!" The promised compensation is relatively high: sometimes $5,000 a month. The requisite skills are negligible. The pajamas-and-robe dress code is implied.

Like most of you, I automatically consign those uninvited overtures to the trash, along with the ads for Viagra and offshore casinos. They must be scams, right? Nothing is that easy.

But with two kids in college I can certainly use extra cash. The magazine business these days is headline-screechingly dicey. And I confess, I'm curious. What if behind all that E-mail smoke actually burns a fire? A fire that adds up to FABULOUS OPPORTUNITY!!! ... THE EASIEST MONEY YOU'LL EVER EARN!!! ... FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE!!!

What if I were actually to respond?

This past fall I decided to lay this particular what-if to rest. I would seek my fortune among work-at-home opportunities, expecting little but privately hoping for some of the $$$$ promised by faceless would-be employers. Here is what happened.

September 4

Already I like the new workplace vibes. I'm in my home study, which is comfortably cluttered with such relics as my grandfather's Underwood typewriter and a calendar depicting old wooden sailboats. This first evening I am not in my pajamas, but the knowledge that I could be if I wanted to is strangely liberating. I've made some calculations: if I'm on the job just two hours each evening, I should bump up my weekly earnings by $300 or so.

The first task is to choose my opportunities. I'm taking work at home literally, meaning that I'm determined to operate entirely from my wooden swivel chair. I'm open to anything that lets my fingers do the walking.

I shuffle through a pile of E-mail that I've been accumulating over the past month, and one message in particular catches my eye. As a work-at-home associate for ProCard International, it says, my job would be "calling back or E-mailing" people who express interest in the company's services. I call up ProCard's Web site on my Compaq desktop, and it looks as though I may be onto something. By paying as little as $14.95 a month, ProCard customers apparently save an average of 30% on their dental, prescription-drug, and other health and legal costs, so long as they stay within the company's provider network. As an associate, I would collect $10 each time a person responded to my calls or E-mail messages and subscribed to the ProCard plan. ProCard would provide me with free leads to prospective customers and access to an 800 number for sales calls.

Sounds dandy. But I'm a little squeamish about the $19.95 ProCard asks for as an activation fee. Nor am I overjoyed that I can qualify as an associate only if I subscribe to the ProCard plan myself or recruit a customer who will. The rate, which includes physician coverage for associates, is $14.95 a month, money that ProCard would withdraw directly from my checking account.

On the upside, associates have the chance to win a five-day Caribbean cruise. In one photo an attractive couple -- presumably successful ProCard associates -- stroll arm in arm on the beach. They look impressively tan and healthy for people who must spend a lot of time in their home offices. Still, I earmark ProCard as a definite possibility.

September 5

I am taken by the candor of an E-mail from Judy Hardin of Palestine, Tex. "This is not one of those get-rich-quick schemes that you see all over the Internet," writes Hardin, describing an opportunity for home typists. Hardin isn't offering a free lunch but rather "real work for real pay." She even divulges her name, a rarity in work-at-home solicitations.

OK, I'm not a great typist. I'm self-taught, and I never learned to touch-type the numbers and symbols on the top row of the keyboard. (See all those dollar signs in the opening paragraph of this story? Making them was no walk in the park, believe me.)

But I won't let being top-line-challenged stand in the way of an extra $75 a week. Hardin touts the opportunity as "very beneficial" for stay-at-home parents, which I'm not. But I do like to work with The Simpsons playing in the background, and this job sounds sufficiently mindless to allow that. "Simply follow our instruction kit," Hardin's E-mail explains, "and handwritten names and addresses come to you every day, and all you have to do is submit them for your pay of $3 for each and every name and address you compile and type."

I send Hardin a check for $8 to sign on with BestBizUSA, which she identifies as the "mother company." Her E-mail promises that I'll receive information "immediately," once I'm registered. I'm practically in business already.

September 6

How amazing is this: I can earn up to $2,000 a week stuffing envelopes. Stuffing envelopes! What could be easier? "You will receive money weekly for the envelopes you stuff as per our instructions," declares the E-mail. "If you are reliable" -- I am! -- "and can devote a few hours daily" -- I can! -- "you are the kind of person we are looking for!"

The URL in the E-mail led me to a Web site bursting with exclamation points. As part of its Home Mailer's Program, Rainbow Expressions Inc., with a post-office box in Sunrise, Fla., will provide envelopes to stuff and other materials. "The work mainly consists of securing envelopes through advertising and simple envelope stuffing," the site explains. "You will not be required to do any selling, phone soliciting, or any other kind of personal contact." The company pays $1 for each envelope stuffed, plus $10 every time "a customer responds to our offer and buys our product." The cost to enroll is a refundable fee of $39.95, plus $7.05 for the shipping-and-handling cost of a "start-up kit," for a total of $47.

I write a check, fill out an order form that I've printed out from the Web site, and stuff the paper in an envelope. I thereby demonstrate that I have what it takes to become a valuable member of the Rainbow Expressions team. As proof positive, I drop the envelope in the mail.

September 11

I answer my phone, and a woman named Rena Logan introduces herself. She is following up on my telephone message of a few days ago, in which I expressed interest in an E-mail solicitation from a company called CSR. I'm still atwitter about the E-mail, which holds out the possibility of an at-home career in the "growing" field of child-support collection. It promises that people who enroll in the company's child-support- collection course can earn thousands of dollars a month performing the "valuable community service" of forcing "deadbeat parents" to pay up.

On the other end of the line Logan is brisk, businesslike. She tells me that CSR employs 25 people at its home office, in Boise, Idaho, and has 40 associates around the country who work on child-support-recovery cases. Logan explains why CSR is a terrific opportunity for me. There is a huge demand for private collectors because of the states' dismal performance in enforcing child-support orders. As a CSR associate, I can earn as much as 30% of the money I collect, which can add up to $15,000 a month. Even as a part-timer I can "work" two or three cases a week. "Can I do it in the evening when I return from my day job?" I ask. "Sure," she says. "You may need to make a phone call every once in a while during your lunch hour."

The price of course materials is $139, which covers 60 days of consulting. If I sign on, Logan says that she will personally break me in. I promise to get back to her.

September 12

It's been more than a week, and I have yet to do any actual income-producing work. It's time for action. On the ProCard Web site I enroll as an associate, downloading the contract, which I sign and fax to the company. I pick a zip code as my "own personal territory." I also fax ProCard a form that authorizes withdrawals from my checking account. I will be a ProCard associate in no time. Alone in my study, I high-five my Compaq.

September 13

Still debating the child-support opportunity, I call CSR for more information. I try several times but can't get through, so I leave a message for Logan. She calls back at 7 p.m., just as dinner hits the table. Regretfully abandoning my spaghetti and meatballs, I answer.

Logan explains that CSR will sell me 25 leads for $250, or I can develop them on my own. "The trick is to go out in your community," Logan says, suggesting that I post ads in such places as day-care centers and pediatricians' offices. Of course, that task would have me venturing outside the house, probably during the day, but I let the objection slide. Instead, I ask how to track down delinquent parents and make them pay up. The CSR materials will instruct me step-by-step, Logan promises. "I've seen people who make $2,500 a week," she says.

I ask for references from CSR associates, but Logan says the company doesn't provide them. "If I was out to scam you," she says, "I could give you anyone's name. I could give you my cousin Vinnie, and you wouldn't know the difference." She laughs, and I join in. "You should know," she adds, "that CSR has a 30-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee." That clinches it. I'm in.

September 14

At the post office I hand over $139 for a money order payable to CSR. It's a lot of money. But in business you must invest before you earn, as some wise man must have said, probably in an E-mail message.

September 17

Hooray! The day's mail brings a large envelope from Rainbow Expressions containing an 11-page "Insider's Plan to Mailing Circulars From Your Own Home!" A photo of a woman who is smiling broadly and clutching a fistful of dollars adorns the cover. There are also 40 standard-size envelopes, 40 slightly smaller envelopes, 39 flyers, and four bulletin-board notices. Now I really am in business!

But something gives me pause. Rainbow's business is the careful addressing of envelopes, yet my name, written in blue ink on the big white envelope, is misspelled: "Rosenblum." Rainbow's other core competency is stuffing envelopes, yet the one I have just opened contains one flyer too few. Perhaps it is a test to see if I am careful and notice mistakes. Proud to have passed, I roll up my sleeves and prepare for some serious stuffing.

On one side, the flyers display an ad for The Work at Home Guide, which costs $34.90, shipping included. The flip side has an offer for a CD-ROM ($84.90) comprising unspecified reports, reference materials, and "money-making ideas," as well as the right to reproduce and sell the CD-ROM to others. The flyers promise the guide will show a purchaser how to "make hundreds of dollars a week from home by simply mailing sales literature from various companies, stuffing envelopes, or doing simple, fun, easy assembly work such as jewelry assembly, toys assembly, or crafts." There's also an order form with the mailing address of Rainbow Expressions.

The "Insider's Plan" lays out the deal for envelope stuffers. Before I start stuffing, I must hunt for people (like me) who will respond to an ad offering work for envelope stuffers. Huh? The circularity is breathtaking.

Fine. But how to advertise for customers? Many of Rainbow Expressions' recommendations sound rather like what CSR suggests to promote a child-support-collection service. I can post bulletin-board ads around town or on Web sites. I can buy "hot prospect" leads from Rainbow Expressions. Or I can consult the company's Submission Blast Site, described as a "completely free" online tool. Each time I generate the name and address of a prospective customer and forward that information -- in a stuffed envelope, natch -- to Rainbow Expressions, I earn a dollar. Each time I send a stuffed envelope directly to a prospect and that prospect buys The Work at Home Guide or the company's CD-ROM, I collect $10. That's cool.

September 19

I log on to the Submission Blast Site and tumble pell-mell into a cyberspace maze. Dazedly, I thread my way through a succession of links to Web sites that solicit paid subscriptions to one work-at-home-related product after another. Nothing is free. I send an E-mail message to Rainbow Expressions asking how I can access the free site.

September 27

I've just received E-mail signed by Ilsa Morales of Rainbow Expressions. She explains that the "free" information I covet is available on the Blast site "once you sign up." In other words, the service is "free" to those who pay $35. Alas, I've reached the end of this particular rainbow and found only an empty pot. Unwilling to shell out more money, I write off my $47 investment in the envelope-stuffing business. You can't expect to score every time.

Still waiting for home-typing information from BestBizUSA, I drop a note to Judy Hardin asking if she has received my check for $8.

Ditto on my child-support-collection course. "I haven't seen any- thing yet, Joe," Rena Logan responds, when I send her an E-mail message to check on my postal money order. I walk to the post office and pay $2.75 for a trace. The clerk says it could be two weeks before I hear whether someone has cashed the money order. I've already spent $141.75 and waited two weeks to become a CSR associate. I'm not sure that I'll ever make it.

September 29, a.m.

It's a lovely Saturday, and I should be in my backyard smelling what's left of the roses. Instead I'm eyeballing the Compaq.

There's another note from Rena Logan, who must be getting tired of my constant queries. "Hi, Joe," replies Rena. "Did you send your money order from the East Coast? We haven't received it." This is so frustrating! The country is lousy with deadbeat dads, and because of some stupid mailing problem I can do nothing -- nothing -- to bring them to account! I tell Rena about the trace. Maybe that will get some action.

September 29, p.m.

Bingo! I'm in business. An E-mail message from ProCard says (fanfare, please): "Welcome to ProCard's work at home career opportunity. We're glad to have you aboard. Good luck on your new career." Included are 10 leads, none of which is in my "personal territory," as defined by the zip code that I picked when I enrolled. Instead, the leads are in eight states stretching from South Carolina to California. It's not a territory; it's an empire.

The ProCard E-mail is from Cindy. No last name. Wanting to introduce myself, I dial the company's number and punch in the first three letters of Cindy's name. "I'm sorry, a match could not be found in the directory," a recorded message says.

To get my bearings, I consult ProCard's FAQs, which say I should work "directly" with my manager. As far as I know, I don't have a manager. Or is Cindy my manager? I should know who my manager is. I still don't have a telephone number for Cindy, but I'll ask her by E-mail if she's my manager.

October 2

According to CSR, I am now a "child support processing professional." I like the ring of professional. When I download the company's manual from the Web, the image of a doe-eyed, curly-haired boy appears on my screen. Silently, I vow not to fail him.

The manual is titled A Complete Guide to Earning Money Through Recovering Uncollected Child Support Awards, which reassures me that my $139 is money well spent. The document reminds me that I'm part of the "leading edge of a major national trend," a shift toward the "privatizing" of child-support-payment collection. The opening pages instill confidence. If I follow CSR's methods closely, I will succeed.

I turn to a section about drumming up clients. The manual proposes such avenues as advertising in newspapers and on bulletin boards, issuing press releases, and buying a slot in the yellow pages. If those suggestions are too expensive for a fledgling, part-time work-at-home entrepreneur, I can buy "hot leads" from CSR for $250. After I've signed up clients, I can follow the manual's directions about how to collect money from delinquent noncustodial parents, which is child-support-collector-speak for deadbeats. Of course, I have to locate the deadbeats or their assets before I can wring any money out of them. As luck would have it, CSR also brokers certain public records -- for a fee. Credit reports are $19 apiece, driving-history profiles are $19, and a search for an active-duty soldier's address is $20.

Based on the CSR manual, I estimate that I will reap roughly $2,200 each time I execute a judgment. But all those fees make me nervous. How much profit will be left after expenses? There's no analysis of that kind in the 317 pages of the CSR manual, more than a third of which is verbatim text drawn from federal statutes, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Apparently, I've paid for a copy of tomes readily available in a good library. If I have to trek through that statutory thicket, I'll need old-age support before I collect any child support.

October 5

Aha! An envelope arrives from Judy Hardin of BestBizUSA Typing Resource Center. I've been waiting a month for information from her, so I open it eagerly. Inside is my letter of September 27, in which I inquired if Hardin had received my check. Stuck to the letter is a Post-it with a handwritten note saying that Hardin has forwarded the check to BestBiz. "You'll be hearing from them soon," she assures me. I wonder if the coming BestBiz information will be typed.

Come to think of it, what do I know about BestBiz? Not much -- not even where the company is located. I ask that question, among others, in a second letter to Hardin.

October 9

Tonight I'm in full work-at-home mode. I'm actually wearing slippers, my shirttail isn't tucked in, and I'm gulping down the last spoonfuls of apple crisp when the telephone rings. It's Rena Logan calling to check on my new life as a CSR associate -- and to offer some leads. Two in the bunch she wants to sell me are in my home state, Massachusetts. "They will be going somewhere tomorrow," she says, meaning that she would sell the leads to another child-support-recovery profes- sional unless I agree to buy them. "We can't keep these parents waiting forever."

How many of the CSR leads typically pay off with successful collections? I ask Logan. "Sixty-two percent," she answers. I ask how CSR rustles up the leads, and she explains that it advertises for clients with "blanket" E-mail messages to people who visit child-support-related Web sites. Lists of such people, along with their E-mail addresses, can be purchased from Internet marketing companies.

I decline to buy any leads but don't rule out changing my mind. If I wait 60 days, Logan warns me, the price for 25 leads goes from $250 to $395.

Meanwhile, E-mail from Judy Hardin arrives. It contains the E-mail address of Paul Sisler, who is apparently a BestBizUSA official. But there's no indication where either Sisler or BestBizUSA is located. Hardin suggests I query Sisler by E-mail, which later I do.

October 12

ProCard International won't respond directly to the question about whether Cindy is actually my manager. "You should just E-mail us here for any questions that you might have," says an unsigned E-mail message, "and we will be happy to help you with whatever you need." The E-mail was sent at 11:40 p.m. It appears that my unidentified contact keeps late hours. Do you suppose he or she is working at home in pajamas?

October 16

The more I contemplate the painstaking, costly work performed by a child-support-collection professional, the more amateurish I feel. I'm as likely to track down deadbeat parents -- perhaps ferret them out across state lines -- and strong-arm them into disgorging what they owe as I am to bust money-laundering cases for the FBI. A part-time evening job? Not bloody likely. I'm loath to sink more time and money into this alleged work-at-home opportunity.

Under CSR's 30-day, money-back guarantee, I can still reclaim the $139 that I paid the company. I bang out an E-mail message requesting a refund. Soon after, I receive an E-mail reply from Rena Logan that points me to a refund-request form on CSR's Web site. I fill in the form and later mail it pronto to the company's headquarters, in Boise.

October 17

Forty-two days after sending my $8 check to BestBizUSA, my home-typing package arrives by E-mail. "Congratulations! And welcome to our company," trumpets the note. The instructions that follow, however, sound all too familiar: I'm supposed to solicit others -- either online or with paper flyers -- to buy the same business opportunity that I've already bought. They don't want typists. They want pitchmen. Although it seems downright unpatriotic, I decide to pass on BestBizUSA.

October 24

Today's mail brings a real estate agent's ad, a Christmas fruit-basket catalog, and a book from my sister, but nothing from ProCard International. I'm waiting on tenterhooks for my ProCard card, which entitles me to discounts from the doctors, dentists, and pharmacists in the company's network or those of its affiliates. ProCard promised that I'd receive the card within approximately 20 days of my enrollment, which was 25 days ago. Where, oh, where could it be? I send an E-mail message to ProCard to inquire.

October 25

No response from ProCard. Wondering about the discounts available with a ProCard card, I check with 5 doctors, 4 pharmacists, and 11 dentists who are identified on ProCard's Web site as part of the company's network of providers in my area. A couple of them are out of business or retired, I'm told; I can't locate others. None of the doctors apparently deals with ProCard or its affiliates, and only 7 of the 15 dentists and pharmacists say they do. I've heard enough. I'm bagging it as a ProCard associate. Dejectedly, I E-mail my resignation.

ProCard sends back a message saying that I must cancel the discount-service plan by "written notice." I do so, adding, "Actually, I never received my card, so in effect you charged me for a service that I was never able to use." I request a full refund of my ProCard membership fees.

November 1

ProCard seems unable to handle rejection. Despite my "Dear John" E-mail message and letter, the company has taken a $14.95 bite out of my checking account, according to my bank. It's probably not worth getting upset about.

November 5

OK, I'm upset. I know $14.95 isn't much money, but it's the principle of the thing, dammit! I fire off a letter to ProCard in protest.

November 20

Zippo from Rena Logan about my CSR refund. Prodded by E-mail, she defers to the company's "administrative office." I whip off an E-mail message to that address: So where's my refund? No response.

Based on my original calculations, I should be ahead by about $2,400 at this point in my work-at-home career. Instead I'm out $261.55, including expenses, assuming that I don't recoup my payments to CSR or ProCard. Kissing the money good-bye hurts. But that pain doesn't compare with the gut-wrench of knowing that I'm trapped in my day job.

But wait! There's a new E-mail message in my box. It's offering a "$Money Making Opportunity!" Certainly, I owe it to myself to check it out.

Joseph Rosenbloom is a senior editor at Inc.

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Published on: Feb 1, 2002