Die, Yuppie Scam

Last week, a six-month-old chain e-mail letter reached the elite literary world, snaking its way up to New Yorker editor Hendrik Hertzberg, who fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

"Not a joke, PLEASE READ," said the subject header on the e-mail. "Hello Disney fans. And thank you for signing up for Bill Gates' Beta Email tracking. My name is Walt Disney Jr."

This "Disney" character went on to ask his fans for help on an "e-mail tracing program" he was developing with Microsoft. In exchange, he offered the kind of perk any family man would jump at. "Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 13,000 people, 1,300 of the people on the list will receive $5,000, and the rest will receive a free trip for two to Disney World."

The chain letter brings joy to the hearts of all who read it. After all, it's one thing to be approached by shady characters on the street offering to split up a windfall of cash, and quite another to be e-mailed a fantasy vacation by your friends in the land of synergy. By December, the Disney pitch had found its way to employees of Intel and Bear Stearns, picking up little endorsements along the way. "I normally don't forward these but I could use a trip to Disney," wrote one sender. "I'm as willing to be a chump as the next person," wrote another. One wag spun it hard, insisting, "I called Disney my damn self. It's no lie."

The e-mail eventually reached New Yorker writer Tad Friend, who appended a note at 10:34 a.m. on January 12 and forwarded it to a few dozen friends, including Kurt Andersen of the New Yorker, George Kalogerakis of New York magazine, and Michael Hirschorn of Spin. The same day, someone sent it to Hertzberg, who added his annotation ("Beats working") and forwarded it at 4:30 p.m. to another dozen or so, including New Yorker contributors Fredric Dannen, Edward Jay Epstein, and Anna Husarska.

Sorry to say, the e-mail is a hoax. And it's been exposed as such in 10 newspapers, including The Washington Post and the New York Post. Both Microsoft and Disney deny its authenticity, pointing out for starters that Walt Disney never had a son. So what's the deal? Apparently, someone is running a very clever piece of credit-card fraud.

Here's one of the tip-offs. The message ends, "You will be notified by email with further instructions once this email has reached 13,000 people." If an earlier version of the chain letter is any indication, the instructions for all 13,000 chumps who respond to the Disney pitch will be to e-mail their credit-card numbers with expiration dates— which ought to make someone a fine spending spree.

Press Clips contacted several recipients to ask what they made of the e-mail. "A chain letter is close cousin to a Ponzi scheme," responded Dannen, always quick to sniff out a scam. Former New Yorker editor Alexander Chancellor said he had deleted it twice, after receiving it from Hertzberg and from Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten.

Upon hearing the news, Hertzberg sighed. "I assumed it was either a hoax or a sociological experiment," he said. "But there's always that slight chance of a free trip to Disney World." He said that after scanning the long text for "interesting e-mail addresses," he sent it on to a few friends, which proved useful, because he learned that some of their addresses were defunct.

Kalogerakis was also quick to face reality. Asked if the e-mail was a hoax, he replied, "Yeah, apparently it is. I think this weather is making people need to believe in it." When told that New York literati seem ready for a mass retreat to Disney World, he replied, "See you there. I'll be the one in the mouse ears."

Drug Dealings

New York Times reporter Christopher S. Wren has won lots of fans in the progressive world since he began writing about drug policy three years ago this month. But Wren's byline has been conspicuously absent since early October. Is this permanent? Of course not. Says a Times spokesperson, "He'll go back on the drug policy beat sometime this month."

In Wren's absence, the Times's drug coverage has been hurting. Wren's last big piece was a front-pager for the Metro section that ran on October 3. That piece, a history of the use of methadone as a treatment for heroin addiction in New York City, was thorough and evenhanded, especially compared to a January 2 A-1 story by N.R. Kleinfield, which profiled three methadone users. The lurid undertone of the Kleinfield piece seemed designed to remind you that these people are still addicts, after all, and they deserve to be set free from that evil state. It was the kind of story you might have read in New York magazine once upon a time.

But New York is smarter than that. Its January 11 issue featured a methadone story by Michael Massing, another superstar on the drug beat. After reporting in the trenches, Massing discovered that Mayor Giuliani's antimethadone crusade gave an unintentional boost to the city's methadone clinics. Massing has been on a roll: his book in defense of drug treatment, The Fix, landed him a flurry of positive reviews, bylines, and interviews last fall; he is now guest-editing a drug policy issue for The Nation.

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