The Digital Journalist
Home Invasion
March 2005

by Ron Steinman

Why am I writing this column, you may wonder, when there are so many more weighty topics to consider? This piece surely, you may think, has little or nothing to do with journalism, media criticism, politics, or the war in Iraq. It does have much to do with the Internet, the worldwide Web, and the latest in what surely has become one of the more pervasive components of life.

We know the wonders of the Internet. If the Internet did not play a role in your life, you would not be reading this online as you now are. We know the Internet's obeisance to freedom. Those who worship the Web often mistake anarchy for freedom. Their quest is to have no one control the Web, what appears on it, and, of course, those of us who use it.

Now, because disorder really is a part of the Internet, and so many make use of it indiscriminately, let's pause for a moment and look at e-mail. What I receive in my e-mail makes me feel wanted in ways I never realized possible. I have come to know that I am not alone and that I have friends, all new, from every part of the globe. We know the Internet's power to overwhelm us with valuable information. There is also an enormous amount of misinformation people work mightily to pass off as the truth. We should treat what we receive through the ether with great care. I do.

In another life before the Internet became a part of my world, the only outside, unwanted interruptions I had at home were the cold callers at dinner trying to make me or someone in my family buy something we did not want or to try and make us contribute a few hard-earned dollars to a suspicious cause. Through a New York State law, my name is off most lists. I hardly get any calls these days from strangers, something I welcome, but I had no idea how empty my life would be after placing my name on that list.

Now at home and at work, I feel I am in the middle of an old Batman TV show with its wham, bam, and pow, its flashing lights and starbursts, because I, like many others, am experiencing a new invasion of privacy as one of the wonders of the digital age. Here they come, galloping across the Internet, hoards from everywhere trying their hardest to rope me in, capture me, and coral me into giving my money to a dry, ultimately bleak, and black hole somewhere in their strange universe. A man cannot be luckier than that. I get sales pitches in Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, and Japanese, none of which I can read. The pitches in English are rife with grammatical errors, probably on purpose. But they keep coming. Many of these messages extol the virtues of counterfeit Viagra, Lipitor and every prescription drug known to man. Others sell rare antiques, computer software, and, of course, hard porn.

It is here that the freedom of the Web that so many admire, or the dangerous anarchy of the Web, something many also admire, is too much for me to take. Why we endure it or allow it to persist with little more than a whimper is something I do not understand. Despite junk mail filters, spam blockers, and whatever else is on the way to help, we remain powerless to end the infiltration of garbage into our lives. Still, we should try our best to get rid of the pests that gnaw away at us daily, however hard it may be. I believe, though, that not even the termite exterminator can help.

I can hear you now. The delete button is my savior, you say. Use it wisely and well to defend yourself from constant annoyance, you argue. Use it to destroy the gibberish that spreads through my in-box, you add. I hear you. I do, but my early amusement about the creativity of the writers of those intrusive e-mails turned quickly to annoyance. These people never give up. I can see them sitting in some seedy bar, sipping beer or cheap red wine, chugging stale coffee in a downtown luncheonette somewhere east of Peoria, tapping away at their laptop engineered for Wi-fi, and certain no one will discover who they are nor from where they write. Despite using the delete key, I saved some messages for posterity and I want to tell you about a few that I am sure everyone receives as often as I do.

These messages come from Richard Makele in Capetown, South Africa; from Dr. Daniel Ibe in Lagos, Nigeria; Mrs. Anna Van Haag in Amsterdam; John Chen of the China Trust Commercial Bank; Graeme Willis, London; Koffi Nana, Accra, Ghana; Senegal, Nigeria, West Africa; Kimaeva Lioudmila in Russia for Yukos Oil; Fayad Bolkiah, Brunei, and on and on. Their text tells me about murdered fathers, imprisoned parents, kidnapped sons, daughters, and winning lottery tickets. One message recently tried to tempt me with the possibility of me being a long-lost Scottish laird. Impossible. I know my background. My roots are firmly in Odessa and Vitebsk and that is where they will remain.

I wonder who in their right mind might be a sucker to fall for these stories with their promise of instant wealth. Offering a chance for millions when you only have to spend a mere pittance to get rich must make some recipients salivate. Greed is a guiding factor for all cons. If someone bites and gives money to get money, in their greed they deserve to lose everything. Greed is the con man's guiding light.

I fall for nothing offered to me on the Internet. Most propositions are too good to be true. It does not take long to recognize the tone of these letters. The death of a family member. Imprisonment during a regime change. Seeking a long-lost relative in an unknown country. My favorite is from the Republic of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Elisabeth Kallon, 20 years old, writes, "I am looking for someone who can take me as a child. I promise to be obedient to you and I will bring happiness to your life. I got your contact from the Internet Search." Flattery will get you nowhere, Elisabeth. I have my own children, and though grown, they are still a handful. At my age, I am not about to take on another daughter. The one I have surpasses all others. I want to thank you for thinking of me, though, and all the thousands of others to whom you wrote hoping for adoption and assistance in managing your money -- all 10 million dollars of it.

In the end, I want to thank all my correspondents everywhere for becoming my friend, my best friend, really. It is good to be wanted. I love you, as I know you must love me. I can handle you, I know. The insecure probably cannot. It is their problem. Not mine. When the payoff comes and I am as rich as Croesus was, I will throw a huge party, invite every one of you, all expenses paid from where you are, to where I am. It is hard to wait for that day to come, but for starters, please show your face and open the bank vault for me to get a look inside to prove you are selling more than empty promises while you try your best to cheat me out of my money. Until then, end the messages and return to me the privacy I so sorely miss.

Footnote: As I finished this piece, being the modern man I am, I turned to my start page and read my horoscope. Here, edited, is what it says. You be the judge.

"Information received through the Internet, through e-mail, or other hi-tech media might turn you on to various ways of improving your life ... new ways to attain financial independence ... methods of expanding your consciousness ... meeting new people who share your interests. You've much to look forward to. The sky's the limit."

I am still looking.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.