- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If your email address becomes somewhat widely known, you’ll probably receive junk emails, also known as “spam.” Most of these are easy to dismiss, and many are caught in spam filters provided by our employers or email service providers.

In recent months, however, I’ve noticed a recent upsurge in emails promoting various “directories” and “associations” that, supposedly, will give someone recognition for their accomplishments and provide all sorts of networking opportunities. If you’re listed in one of these publications, which often use the words “who’s who” in the title — of which more in a moment — you are deemed part of a select group of notable individuals.

A quick Google search of some of these “who’s who” scams reveals plenty. There is a valid “who’s who” directory series published by Marquis Who’s Who LLC, of Berkeley Heights, N.J. The Marquis firm, for many years a unit of the Reed Elsevier publishing empire, is now part of National Register Publishing, another reputable directory publishing firm that is well known in the industry and has a long history.

The key fact to remember about the Marquis volumes is the firm never charges someone to be listed, and never asks a “listee,” as they call those included, to buy anything.

That’s not true for the other “who’s who” merchants out there. The spam emails will state that your listing is free, but once you submit your data, get ready for a steady stream of phone calls and emails urging you to buy all sorts of stuff, including the volume in which your information appears.

Legally, it appears, these other operations are legitimate, to the extent that you are provided a product for which you pay a price or fee. But as the New York chapter of the Better Business Bureau notes in its website entry on such directories, that price can be as much as $1,000 for a single volume.

The same goes for groups with names claiming to be organizations of “professional women” or “successful individuals” or a “national academic society.” There are well known and established academic honors societies, groups of professionals (usually organized by profession) and other groups to which the successful might belong. Generally, such organizations don’t blast out mass emailings looking for new recruits.

Because almost anyone likes to be recognized, and because many of us want to network and advance in our careers — especially during challenging economic times — offers such as these can be very appealing. It’s incumbent upon consumers to be extremely diligent in checking out anything that comes in via email, unless the vendor is really well known to us. If something seems a bit fishy, such as high-pressure sales tactics, it’s probably best to just run away.

Again, many of these offers are thwarted by good spam detection systems. But in the past year, I’ve heard more than one story from a smart individual who’s been taken in by these deals, and while they each, fortunately, have been able to get out, others may not know the score. The Internet is both a help and a curse here: A curse, because that’s how the offers come in, but a help because, again, a Google search of the generic scam, or better still, the specific name or address of the organization, will yield tons of information on who is really on the up-and-up and who may be suspect.

There are few shortcuts in this life, and paying to have your name and life’s details listed in a volume of dubious reputation isn’t likely to get you anywhere but poorer, and perhaps wiser.

Proponents of free speech and free enterprise might argue these merchants are just operating a business. While that’s true, it is also my opinion that purveying what appear to be false hopes is not how life should be lived.

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