Money for Nothing

Hopeful beggars shake their virtual cups online

"Save Clay's Car!"

The Web site's plea is simple, direct. Desperate to restore his classic 1977 Porsche, 17-year-old Midland resident Clay Chastain has turned to cyberbegging.

He states on his Web site, www.vectortea.com/oweb/scc, "I see donation scams all over the Internet. And I bet that you do too. People are scamming for hurricane Katrina and everything else in between. But not me -- no gimmicky Ôwin an iPod' scams or natural male enhancement. I'm just here to fix my 1977 Porsche 924 Martini Rossi Racing Edition into a fully-restored piece of history."

In the last four years, countless people have taken to shaking virtual tin cups online, hoping to get money for everything from new homes to fake breasts. Whether they're lazy or sincerely have no place else to turn, cyberbeggars can't resist the potentially huge payoffs.

Chastain, who grew up in Kingwood, really loves his car. And his folks have given him a deadline: He's going to Trinity University for graphic design in August, and if he doesn't have the car restored by then, his parents will make him get rid of it. His site lists all the work he's done on the car and what else is needed. He told the Houston Press that he needs about $3,000 to fully restore the car. So far, he's received about $200.

Speaking by phone, Chastain says, "My parents don't like it because...it doesn't have, like, safety features and it's not new and it has all the, like, broken stuff on it. But, you know, I mean, who needs an odometer anyways?"

He says that if enough people donate for him to keep the car, he will install a donors' plaque on the inside. He isn't overly optimistic about raising all the money he needs, but he's determined to prove to his parents that his car is safe and drivable.

"If I can spend enough money and make it look nice, then it'll make them feel better about the car," he says. "Because if I put my heart and soul into the car, then I'm sure they'll let me keep it."

Douglas McConatha, a sociology professor who teaches a course on cyberculture at Pennsylvania's West Chester University, says we should get used to this trend.

"There's a larger cultural issue that the Internet has become an extension of the real word," he says. And even though some might laugh at giving a kid money to fix a run-down Porsche, others will be moved. And so will their wallets.

"On the Internet, you don't know if there's somebody out there that's just as rabid about your particular passion as you are, and that person might want to help," McConatha says. "And so the chances are, by casting your fate to the, you know, sort of ether wind, I guess, you know, something might come back. It's a very low-cost [way] to do that and the rewards are potentially very high. It's a lot easier [to do it] from your kitchen table than it is standing out in the streets."


The plan was so simple it was brilliant.

Alex Tew, a 21-year-old from the small English town of Wiltshire, wanted to go to the University of Nottingham. But he wanted to go for free. He didn't want to rack up $60,000 in debt like his brother.

So, as he told Adweek.com in January, "It was the last week of August [2005]...I was up late with my notepad, lying on my bed brainstorming. I wrote down the question, 'How can I become a millionaire?' I wrote down it would need a simple idea to understand and set up. It would have to cost very little. It would need a good name to capture people's imagination. And then it popped in my head."

"It" is www.milliondollarhomepage.com, the most successful cyberbegging Web site in the trend's four-year history. Tew's creation is a simple page with 1,000,000 pixels he's auctioning off for advertising space. The minimum purchase is $100 for a ten-by-ten block of pixels. The result is a monstrosity, a stroke-inducing eyesore of a bulletin board with nearly indecipherable ads for mostly Internet-based businesses. But that's the businesses' problem. On January 11, Tew broke the $1 million mark.

Tew's site became a worldwide media sensation, spawning imitators and even attracting hackers who crashed the site and tried to extort $50,000 from Tew (he didn't pay).

Now that he's a millionaire, it might be hard to think of Tew as a cyberbeggar, but he's the biggest thing to happen to online panhandling since a young New Yorker named Karyn Bosnak asked complete strangers to bail her out of debt four years ago.

Even after the advent of Tew's site, Bosnak's name carries an almost religious significance in the world of cyberbegging. In 2002, the 24-year-old television producer found herself $20,000 deep in credit card debt. So she launched www.savekaryn.com, asking people to bail her out. Despite stupid spending habits, she had good qualities: 1) her writing showed a funny, likable, decent person who saw the error of her ways; and 2) she said she had a plan to change her spending habits for the better.

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