Money for Nothing
"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 ...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.
Word of mouth led to interviews, which led to more donations, which led to Bosnak's eliminating her debt in five months. In all, she received more than $13,000 from strangers. She has since written a book about the experience.
With so many cyberbeggars shouting from so many cyber-street corners, it only makes sense that someone started a business to lump a bunch of them together.
In 2002, two guys from Gainesville launched www.cyberbeg.com, charging people five bucks to add their stories to a list of hundreds of others. The Spartan Web site has changed little in four years, other than it now costs $15 every six months to keep your message online. (CyberBeg reps originally agreed to an e-mail interview but did not reply to the questions.)
According to their site, "Cyberbeg.com offers people hope. The site provides a way for financially unfortunate people to connect with those who may donate. Some may compare it to a lottery or the classifieds, but we like to think of it as a site dedicated to helping people."
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the site's creators sought to trademark the term "cyberbeg" in 2003, defining it as the "service of providing for panhandling or begging on the web/Internet." The filing was listed as "abandoned" as of 2004.
Another Florida-based site, www.millionairehelp, charges a minimum of $10 for six months. The site claims to "target millionaires" who are just itching to plop down money for your new Benz or boobs. You can even become a millionaire yourself, in as little as 15 minutes. The site lists the ten richest people in the world, as if they were regular readers.
Ericka Boussarhane, who identified herself as the site's CEO and president, says she reaches the rich via ads placed on message boards and in publications preferred by millionaires. This includes www.millionaire.com, publishers of magazines with such titles as Millionaire Yachts, Millionaire Aircraft and Millionaire Watches.
Speaking from a day-care center she runs in Florida, Boussarhane says, "People of means can help people in need."
No one appears to be helping people with poor typing skills, however, because the site is riddled with typos that presumably fly under the radar of the filthy rich. And until a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter pointed it out in a recent story, Boussarhane was charging $35 for six months and $99 for a year.
But Steve Donohue, Webmaster of www.savemesites.com, offers his service for free.
"If you're on the Internet begging for help, chances are you're not sitting around with a lot of money," he says from Detroit, where he works as an "IT guy."
Besides offering free listings, Donohue also tries to weed out scammers -- mostly people who post with offers to donate money; sort of along the lines of the Nigerian scam.
"The problem is that a lot of people on there looking for help, they're not in a good position to make good decisions," he says. "If you're on there and your house is about to be foreclosed in two weeks and some guy says, ÔWell, here, cash this check and you keep $1,000 and send $9,000 on'...people are more likely to fall for it. That's the biggest problem, is that there's a lot of desperate people on that site...It's probably the biggest moral issue of the thing: Are you really helping people, or are you just helping the scammers find people?"
Timothy Hickey, chair of Brandeis University's Internet Studies Program, also wonders about scammers.
Although Hickey told the Press he wasn't familiar with cyberbegging, he poked around online and shared some thoughts in an e-mail. His initial concern was the potential for fraud, and he suggested an alternative method.
"Linking cyberbegging into a Friendster-type social network might be a more effective approach as it would allow people to search out chains of relationship and verify the facts of the situation with mutual friends (or mutual cyber-friends)," he wrote. "...There would be no 'shame' in letting your friends know that you need money for this unexpected expense, and friend networks would allow people to verify the facts of the case."
In his three years running the site, Donohue hasn't seen any major success stories. Most cyberbeggars are chronically behind; even if they get a few hundred bucks one month, they'll still be behind the next. Unlike Tew, they don't have a brilliant gimmick; and unlike Bosnak, most cyberbeggars just don't have a plan.
But one thing's for sure: If your plan involves fake boobs, you're almost guaranteed success.
Women seeking breast implants make up a huge portion of the cyberbegging population. Some have even formed unions of sorts, including www.myfreeimplants.com, which allows benefactors to pick from a list of scantily clad women in order to "help the girl of yourdreams get the body of her dreams." Paid members can chart their adoptee's progress via blogs.
Jason Grunstra, 28, launched the site last year. It's free for women, but men have to pay around $1.80 for each e-mail they send. The women make a buck off each e-mail; Grunstra and PayPal take the balance. So far, about 700 women and 2,000 men have joined. Grunstra, who lives in L.A., says he keeps each woman's money in a bank account until they reach their target, and he keeps the interest.
After three months on the site, Angel of Dallas raised $5,000 for her surgery, which she had in early April. After giving birth to her daughter, the 20-year-old had been unhappy with her breasts.
"Before I had my daughter, I always wanted to be a cheerleader," she says from Dallas. "And it's kind of intimidating to look at the pictures of the girls that are cheerleaders now, that most of them are pretty full and have great bodies. And I figured that, you know, why not? I want to look great, too."
She says she's trying out in October to be a cheerleader for the Desperados, Dallas's Arena Football League team. She also hopes to try out for the Cowboys one day.
Benefactors have also found other ways to donate to all the fake-boob-minded women out there. In 2003, a fellow calling himself Hugh Jass launched www.pimpingthepoor.com as a way to kill two birds with one stone. Hugh and his friends claim to have an annoying boss named Kurt Smith. They also enjoy fake-boob-cyberbegging sites. So they contacted the cyberbeggars and offered them a few bucks if they would model skimpy garments on their own sites that read "Kurt Smith Sucks." In some cases, it's been a hit.
A 22-year-old Pasadena woman who calls herself Brandi was featured on PimpingThePoor.
She originally solicited on eBay, seeking donations to start a business, although she didn't know what type of business she wanted. In an e-mail interview with the Press, Brandi explained that she "wanted to be 'the next Martha Stewart,' just a little more sexy."
She says her eBay ad was initially a joke, but "donations flooded in so I just went with it from there. I didn't do it to get rich or so I could be lazy. I just wanted to start my business and the banks are not so helpful getting a young girl a loan, so I asked the world to help."
She ultimately decided to install Webcams in her home and launch her own pay Web site. She says she raised $4,000 and also had donations of software and other equipment. Her biggest single donations were $700 and $500. (Brandi preferred an e-mail interview because she's "shy.")
Launched in November 2005, www.brandilive.com shows its namesake in various states of dress sitting on various surfaces. It also shows her with her fianc and her dog, Starla. Brandi declined to reveal how much money she's made from the site, which is only one of her endeavors -- she says she also has an online jewelry store.
She believes she would have raised more money from her eBay ad, but she stopped as soon as she had enough to launch her site. And also, "my mom called me an Internet panhandler and bag lady, so I started feeling a little guilty :D."
Hugh Jass believes Brandi's is a rare success story. Also choosing to communicate only via e-mail, Jass writes, "Cyberbegging doesn't work. I'm not sure it ever has (there are only two or three success stories that I know of -- most of the other successes you hear about actually got bailed out another way). For every site that makes a few bucks, there are dozens that are just a waste of time. You're most likely to make some money if you have a sick pet or you want boobs. Christmas-related stories sometimes get you a few dollars. Overall, most people reading the sites figure they're a scam and most of the time they're probably right."
But, as McConatha says, some people just like to give away money. It makes them feel good.
Those people have a friend in cyberbeggars, who make it easy to sift through countless pleas until the benefactor finds a cause close to his or her heart. And since even highly respected charities like United Way and the American Red Cross have found themselves scrutinized for questionable money management, cutting out the middleman might not be a bad idea, he says.
"It's an ideological shift we're undergoing...that we can avoid all these intermediate steps which may or may not be beneficial," McConatha says. "If we can avoid that, why not do that? And find people that we feel like need our attention? And it makes people feel good to give money away, you know. They become the Andrew Carnegies and the Henry Fords just by giving $10 out to someone that might need a basket of groceries."
So Clay Chastain might very well find a benefactor who appreciates classic cars. Or if that isn't your thing, there are always stories involving the critically ill, and Claudia McNeely's site fills the bill. The only difference is, she claims her Web site might make her lose money.
McNeely, of the small East Texas town of Gilmer, hasn't updated www.helpsamanthalive.com in more than a year. She launched the site in 2005 as a way to cover health care for her critically ill daughter, now 22. McNeely says Medicaid pays enough for a nurse to watch Samantha for seven hours a day. But she says her daughter's Medicaid would be cut if she reported any additional income. So she's kept the site up, but she says she's not "promoting" it.
McNeely, who says she was just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and can't work outside the home, collects a disability check. And while she runs a few other online businesses, she says those hardly make money.
Ironically, one of those businesses is www.askclaudia.com, where McNeely offers her services as a psychic and healer.
"Claudia is a Medical Intuitive and can psychically 'see' problems in your physical body and help you to release them," the site boasts. She's certified in hypnotherapy, Reiki, Wicca, "candle magick" and "bio energetic synchronization."
She also sells cock rings, anal toys, dildos and dongs, vibrators and strap-ons. That's on www.claudiassensualdelights.com.
Unfortunately, none of these endeavors has helped Samantha, injured in utero in a car crash. Severe brain damage resulted in cerebral palsy, profound retardation and seizures. She's on continuous oxygen and is fed through a tube. She has a shunt in her head to drain the fluid pushing down on her brain. And at least four times a day, she has to hang off a table to drain fluid from her lungs. She wasn't supposed to live past age eight.
McNeely credits Samantha's longevity to her healing skills.
"She's alive today because of what I do," she says from Gilmer. "Even her doctor said that. She would've already died if it weren't for the healing work that I do with her."
She said she's made only a few hundred from HelpSamanthaLive, but she's confident that she will be able to work one day and make enough money for more health care. She'd like Samantha to have 20 hours of nursing care a day.
"I would like to get off the disability and make money, and I'm still trying, you know," she says. "It's going to get there one of these days."
"I don't know where you go to a million-dollar college, but that immediately...started the knockoff," freelance technology reporter Christopher Null says of The Million Dollar Homepage. "That is the most recent incarnation of this phenomenon."
It gave juice to a trend that, in 2003, Null thought had run out of steam.
In a story for Wired, Null wrote, "In tracking down the second generation of panhandlers, few of Wired News' requests for comment were returned; most bounced because the e-mail addresses listed have gone defunct as their sites have been abandoned."
The story, appropriately enough, was called "Buck Stops for Web Panhandlers."
But speaking to the Press, Null says, "As with anything on the Web, nothing is ever dead. I mean, people will knock off a trend until...the Internet collapses."
He adds, "It's the same concept as the lottery. The chances are slim, but the potential payoff is theoretically huge. There's also almost no effort to put up a Web page and ask for money."
If Tew can make a million for selling (basically) nothing, maybe Chastain can find a lousy $3,000 to nurse a beloved car back to health. And maybe McNeely can get enough to make Samantha a little more comfortable.
And even though everyone who holds a coin to a scratch-off ticket or plucks numbers out of the air for Powerball knows they probably aren't likely to win, it's just too tempting.
"People love to get free stuff," Null says. "You can't argue with human nature, I guess."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.