Money for Nothing

Are all get-rich-quick schemes too good to be true?

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

It was the summer I couldn’t find a job. Houlihan’s said I was overqualified to wash dishes. The Gap ended my interview after I tried to fold a sweater. So I printed out my résumé, put on a tie, and showed up at a suburban hotel ballroom for a 10 a.m. cattle call.

About 25 other people, mostly college students like me, responded to the same newspaper ad, which said only “marketing opportunity” along with a time, date, and address. We sat in folding chairs, filling out applications, until a young guy with shiny dark hair bounded in and told us how much money he’d been making—a lot, judging from his teeth. 

Then he pulled out some knives. That’s how he got rich, he claimed: selling kitchen knives door to door. And so could we, if we learned to cut a tomato can in half.

There are legitimate if strange ways to make a quick buck, as I learned long ago. My mom was a secret shopper in the 1980s. A woman she never met at a mysterious company would send her cash to buy Little Caesars pizza and report on the kids behind the counter. As a broke college student, I once sold my plasma for $50, watching Friends in a room full of guys with needles in their arms. 

But this is small change, like plucking quarters off the street, and it’s easy to assume there’s much more where this came from, stuck in the slot machine. We want to believe in buried treasure, if only because so many people tell us it’s there. Phone numbers on telephone poles, ads on Craigslist, links shared in the comments on newspaper stories—all promising big bucks for less effort than it takes to don clothes. 

Recently I clicked on one of those “work from home” ads so ubiquitous on Facebook. My browser flipped from page to page, as though it’d been kidnapped, landing on a site resembling financial news, complete with a bogus stock ticker. An article described a woman who was getting rich in her pajamas, though it never said what she does beyond “fill out forms” and “use the internet.”

A link in the article led to another site where you have to enter your email and phone number to learn more. Scam debunkers say you’ll eventually be asked for a credit card number to buy a start-up kit, and then you’ll find out what you’re actually supposed to do: Post the same kind of ad wherever you can. You become a spammer, just like the jerk who spammed you.

If you’re lucky, you’ll only lose the monthly maintenance fee they charge you—not your entire bank account. Either way, you’ve just become a character in a Coen brothers movie, and there aren’t many of those that turn out well.

In the hotel ballroom all those years ago, the guy pitching the knives-to-riches scheme had flattered us at first. How fortunate we were to stumble upon this opportunity, Aladdins with our lamps. But then he gave us a choice: learn to become kings, or leave after the break. As I headed to the door, into the bright sunshine of mediocrity, he yelled after me, “I guess you don’t have what it takes!”

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