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Tuesday, September 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ERIK LACITIS

Buying into an e-mail, and seeing slim returns

Seattle Times staff columnist

Today we will meet two people who took the plunge. They bit on the lure that greets millions of Americans for whom checking their e-mail is part of the morning ritual:

"Make $50,000 in 90 days!" Hmm, hmm. Hook, line and sinker.

These days, your e-mail not only contains a letter from your cousin in Oregon, and that stern inter-office memo about annual goals, but a considerable amount of "bulk mailings." People have told me that bulk mailings outnumber the real e-mail they get by 3-to-1, which is why there is a second part to the morning e-mail ritual: hitting the "delete" button.

That is what Jean Dubois, 75, and Matt McKinney, 32, usually would have done. But there was this one e-mail offer being forwarded everywhere . . .

"First thing I knew, I was reading on - and on," Jean told me. "Johnathon Rourke is long-winded but convincing. I loved his letter. Thought about it. Thought about it some more. The thing I liked about it, the way it differed from the standard chain letter, was that instead of putting your name on the bottom of the list, where your chances of seeing any actual money were slim, you put yourself first."

Last Friday I wrote about Johnathon Rourke, who exults in his e-mail:

". . . in 1979 my business began falling off . . . In mid-December, I received this program. . . . Here was a MONEY-MAKING MACHINE . . . Initially I sent out 10,000 e-mails . . . By March 1 . . . I received $58,000 . . . GET STARTED TODAY: PLACE YOUR ORDER FOR THE FOUR REPORTS NOW. Note: ALWAYS SEND $5 CASH . . ."

I believe more people have read Rourke's forwarded e-mail than all of this year's best-selling books combined. So in that first column, I asked Rourke to contact me after various efforts to locate him failed.

The elusive Rourke has yet to call, but I did talk to a couple of people who read his e-mail, and believed.

Chris Bourne, of Bothell, told me about her mom, Jean Dubois, of Golden, Colo. Jean thought the Rourke e-mail was such an opportunity that she suggested Chris get in on the action. Forget it, said the daughter. But Jean plunged on.

Let's bottom-line the results. Jean sent $5 cash for one of the reports - to a plumber in California, who actually sent her all four. The reports are rudimentary explanations of how to send bulk e-mail (hire a reputable company specializing in such matters) plus the "secrets" of multilevel marketing (there are millions of potential customers out there!).

Next, Jean spent $194 paying a bulk-mailer to send a copy of Rourke's letter to 100,000 e-mail addresses. That was in June. So far, she's gotten one $5 bill. Jean felt so bad she offered to send it back to her lone customer. Keep it, she was told.

All right, let's hear how it went for Matt McKinney, 32, of Wenatchee, who works in housekeeping at a hospital.

Matt spent $5 to get his Rourke reports. Then he spent $100 for 100,000 e-mail addresses. Then Matt spent a whole bunch of hours programming his home computer to send out the 100,000 e-mails. In the past three weeks, Matt has gotten 22 $5 bills in the mail; since his cash investment was $105, his profit has been, let's see, something like $5?

As a bonus, Matt also has gotten a nasty note from his Internet provider, MSN, telling him to quit sending unsolicited e-mails. Matt decided to try his luck on some other fantastic Internet offers.

He signed up with a nutritional-products firm (multilevel marketing, naturally), and paid $1,650 to have 3,000 fliers sent out. So far, his 10 active customers have netted Matt a total of $42.

Matt also is paying $29.95 a month to have his name on a multimarketing Web site selling goods such as, you guessed it, multimarketing books. "I don't think I've sold a damn book yet," Matt said.

Talking to Jean, it sounded as if the e-mail lures don't sound so luring anymore.

As for Matt, I think what he told me would bring a smile to Johnathon Rourke, or whoever did write that "make $50,000" e-mail.

"Someday I want to be my own boss," Matt sighed. "I think a couple of these things will work out for me. Yeah, I think they will."

We might be in the digital age, but some things never, ever change.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elacitis@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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