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Investigative Journalism: How fun can it get?

Updated on December 8, 2011
Where does this trail go next? Who is involved? Are my facts fact?
Where does this trail go next? Who is involved? Are my facts fact? | Source

Are you curious? There just might be a story there....

One of the most famous stories of investigative journalism was the story which brought down an American president: Watergate. Two young reporters at the Washington Post newspaper, and an editor, an owner, and some not always willing sources (many of them not a little scared) may well have saved American democracy as we know it.

Lots of less famous, but nearly as important, stories which have come from digging, researching, verifying facts (and many involving not a little courage) keep our society and rule of law more honest and functional.

Here is a modest example.

If you haven't seen a chain letter lately, you are among the few, the proud, and the forgotten. How these scammers fashion their own suckers lists could be a story in itself, but here is the story of one such scam.

I received two in one week several years ago. They were the same letter, each had four names I was to send $5.00 to ("cash only, please".) The names and addresses were different, but the pitch was the same: I was guaranteed to "make $50,000 in less than 90 days!"

Presumably, if I sent off my $5.00 to each of the eight names, I could double that (two letters, remember?) and make a guaranteed $100,000 in the same 90 days!

Now, even Americans from age 5 northward have been cautioned that "If it sounds too good to be true..." but the suckers get drawn in by that "sure bet" ("after all, it's guaranteed"---never mind by whom!)

In return for that $40.00, I would receive eight sets of the same "informational reports" on what to do to keep those return dollars rolling in.

Not being one to turn my back on almost effortlessly receiving $100K in 90 days (in "Cash" no less!) I wondered how the senders of these almost identical letters had determined that this particular chain letter was what it claimed to be: "LEGITIMATE" and "LEGAL."; So, I called a postal inspector and asked him. Gary Collins, the postal inspector, replied that the letter was too good to be true (or I guess he of all people would have been making at least that guaranteed $50,000.00 every 90 days instead of working to punish....well that's later in this story.)

Because the letter was, in fact, illegal by the definition of what a chain letter is: (1) it offers a benefit or prize for some activity, (2) in consideration of that activity, and in return for money (my $40...okay $20), I would have the chance to become wealthy (Woo Hoo!) based on how many other people might send ME their hard-earned $5.00 cash for copies of the same reports I had already concluded were worthless!

Now, besides being illegal under the postal codes related to lotteries, false representations, and/or fraud statutes, the mathematics of chain letters dooms them to fail, even if everybody was sucker enough to send in $5.00 for reports they would then copy and "sell" to everybody else!

Gary Collins showed that, even if I sent $5.00 to six of the eight addresses in the letters, and then sent out letters, and those recipients sent out similar letters to six people, each of whom sent six letters to six people, etc., by the time this process repeated itself just 13 times, all the "six times six times sixes" would have exceeded the population of the whole world (presumably including India and China!)

In actual fact, the chain wouldn't have to be repeated that many times before some Americans would be receiving several such letters a week, just as I had!

Of course, long before that point our jails would be fuller than they are already!

The penalty at that time for mailing out such fraudulent chain letters was a $1,000.00 fine and as much as two years in jail (meals and medical care included, plus exciting---or excited cellmates---but that's coming later in this story.)

Just for fun, I decided to contact each of the eight addresses in the two letters. I sent out eight 3" by 5" cards and eight prepaid return envelopes (no $5's though; I'm cheap and don't like jails.) The cards simply stated that I was "excited" about the offer, and only had one question: what had they done to check for themselves as to whether or not the chain letter WAS legal.

While I waited for the replies that might (and did) come, I ran an ad in the "Personals" section of a local paper, asking readers who had received a chain letter to give me a call. The calls started pouring in.

That wasn't too surprising, because the Chicago Office of the postal service (yes, I called them too) was receiving more than 600 complaints a week about chain letters! (Imagine the phones ringing off the hook, if "six times six times sixes" started hitting everyone's mailbox!) And, catch this, the guy in Chicago said that the 600 weekly complaints only counted people and businesses which took the time to send the letters to their postmaster and actually complained!

In checking, my ad responders verified that there were a number of other copies of the letter I had received, as well as different chain letters asking for any amount from $1.00 on up. The managing editor of one local paper told me that the letter I heard about most frequently had "been around for about 25 years"!

All of this led me to suspect that prosecuting the originators of chain letters could be an overwhelming and thankless task (besides our already full jails with no room for chain letter writers!) So, I called the Chief Postal Inspector's Office in Washington, DC and was shunted to a "media specialist" named Paul Griffo who promised to tell me what the statistics were on actual prosecutions that year. With no reply, a day later I called the Washington office of my congressman and asked them to try to get the statistic. A week later I tried both of them again while wondering if I would have to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out how badly the public at large gets ripped off by chain letter scams.

The result I found was that "a management system change" had somehow reduced the number of open cases from 42,999 in the previous year "down to 15,131" in that current year. (The three previous years had averaged over 38,000 per year.)

And, here's the clincher I promised earlier: there had been no prosecutions in the previous five years! That's zero with as many other zeros as you want.

That wasn't because the problem had ceased.

The responses to my 3" by 5" cards? Here is a typical one: "You'll LOVE the Program! Sorry I can't send all 4 reports ~ the Program doesn't work that way. You must follow the instructions exactly. If you're concerned about the legality it's best you check the P. O. yourself because everyone in the Program will tell you it's legal. It works it's great . Best wishes,"

Let's see.....lots of complaints....."no prosecutions"..... maybe that lady was right!

Here's the spiel then (and ask yourself whether or not the scammers even need to change the spiel to keep up with the times:


"By the time you have read the enclosed information and looked over the reports, you should have concluded that such a program, and one that is legal, could not have been created by an amateur. Let me tell you a bit about myself. I had a profitable business for ten years. Then, in 1979, business began falling off. I was doing the same things that were previously successful for me, but it just wasn't working. Finally I figured it out, it wasn't me, it was the economy. Inflation and recession had replaced the stable economic growth that had been with us since 1945. I don't have to tell you what happened to the unemployment rate...because many of you know from firsthand experience. There were more small business failures and bankruptcies than ever before. The middle class was vanishing. Those who knew what they were doing invested wisely and moved up. Those who did not, including those who never had anything to save or invest, were moving down into the ranks of the poor. As the saying goes, 'THE RICH GET RICHER AND THE POOR..... .' The traditional methods of making money will never allow you to 'move up' or 'get rich'. Inflation will see to that. You have just received information that can give you financial freedom for the rest of your life. With 'NO RISK' and 'JUST A LITTLE BIT OF EFFORT' you can make more money in the next few months than you have ever imagined! I should also point out that I will not see a penny of your money, or that of anyone else who participates in this program. I have already made OVER FOUR MILLION DOLLARS! I have retired from the program after sending out over 16,000. Follow the program EXACTLY AS INSTRUCTED. Do not change it in any way. It works exceedingly well as it is now. Remember to send a copy of this exciting program to everyone that you can think of. Do not feel hesitant about....".[and so forth.]

There is one way to save the almost bankrupt postal service, crack down on the chain letters at $1,000 a pop. Let the stubborn mailers plea bargain down to $250.00 and avoid having to go to court. You can start that ball rolling by calling your own congressional representatives and asking for an answer as to "How many chain letter mailers did the United States Postal Service actually prosecute last year, despite the large number of formal complaints and citizen complaints it received?"

When you have their answer (and insist on one!) then call back and say "Let's see, that's 40,000 times $1,000? The way I figure it, that $40,000,000.00 could help the postal service, even if it did cut down on the mailers buying stamps!

Or then again, would it?

If there is even a hint of detective in your blood, and you like to write (or just raise a ruckus,) why not do a little basic research on the next observation in your life that raises the question "What's really going on there?"

Two reporters, not so long ago, did and it won them accolades, book royalties, and even movie royalties.

Then again, you could always send a "guaranteed" chain letter! Let's see that's $4,000,000 divided by 16,000, minus copying, envelopes, stamps..... Oh, and an attorney!

(c) 2011 Demas W. Jasper

Scam...or...Scam-proof: you choose..

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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What a fun Hub and interesting. It is hard to believe that such letters and scams (an in such great numbers) are still circulating. Sad. you have an interesting mind; I would never have thought to write on such a topics. :)