Wants Her Chicken

Why Even the Most Legit-Seeming Spam Is a Scam

Q: I know you're never supposed to respond to spam, but a few weeks ago I got one I couldn't resist—an offer for a free order of Crispy Strips from KFC! I filled out a survey, as requested, and they promised a coupon was on the way. Now, nearly a month later, no coupon has arrived, but my inbox is awash in more spam than ever. What gives?

Mr. Roboto has some sympathy for your plight, as the Colonel's deep-fried lure is powerful, indeed. But you should have trusted your instincts on this one—even the most legit-seeming spams aren't worth your time. What you fell for is a classic of direct marketing, teasing out your personal info with a dubious reward. And though Mr. Roboto may snag that chicken for you, your privacy will be harder to recoup.

Even the dimmest newbie knows the vast majority of spam is the work of pro fraudsters, rather than reputable corporations like KFC parent Yum! brands (which had nothing to do with your spam). Sawdust capsules from Fujian won't increase your penile girth, sad to say, nor will a busty Ukrainian lass give you marital bliss. The Federal Trade Commission recently estimated that two-thirds of spam is either "deceptive or misleading."

illustration: Suzanne Allen

The other 33.33 percent may be truthful on some level, but there's always a price. Mr. Roboto checked out the KFC pitch you forwarded, and found the link was dead. The fine print noted it had been sent by Recipe4Living.com, which curiously bills itself as a repository of "practical wisdom on how people can eat healthier." Its top tip? "Stop eating fast food." Um, KFC doesn't qualify?

Mr. Roboto dug into the site's ownership, and found it was a subsidiary of Silver Carrot, a direct-marketing company on West 36th Street. Silver Carrot's in the business of building membership sites like Recipe4Living, which aggregate personal info—20 million individual records to date. That info, ranging from household income to exercise habits, is then sold to the likes of Capital One and Orbitz. Recipe4Living, the company's brochure states, is geared toward amassing data from females between the ages of 28 and 45.

So by responding to the KFC pitch, you became another entry in the database, and made Silver Carrot's clients all the merrier for spending $2 per thousand spams sent. Mr. Roboto bets the thought of delicious Crispy Strips clouded your mind just enough so that you'd have joyfully forked over details like how often you go jogging, or how much you pay for rent.

Hoping to turn chicken droppings into chicken strips, Mr. Roboto gave Silver Carrot CEO Allen Levy a ring. To his credit, Levy's a pretty accessible guy, unlike many of his spamming brethren, who use hijacked domain names to peddle their wares. Levy explained that the KFC offer was ultimately a way to get you to sign up for Milesource, "a site that rewards members for visiting, joining, and shopping at sponsors' sites"—in other words, yet another way of data mining.

As for your complaint regarding your current influx of spam, Levy gave a verbal shrug and said you should have read Recipe4Living's privacy policy. He's right—the policy clearly states that "you hereby consent to disclosure of any record or communication to any third party when Recipe4Living.com, in its sole discretion, determines the disclosure to be appropriate." Mr. Roboto's said it before, and he'll say it again: Scope those privacy statements—unless you actually like getting 400 e-mails per day hawking Omaha Steaks and low mortgage rates.

Levy claimed, however, that your Crispy Strips coupon should still be forthcoming. "We redeem close to $1.5 million in promotions each year," he boasted, noting that Silver Carrot salesmen actually purchase the coupons from individual KFCs. If your mailbox is still empty three weeks from now, drop Silver Carrot a note and they'll try and hook you up.

Or perhaps not. Upon closer inspection, the original spam warns that Recipe4Living "reserves the right to cancel this offer at any time," and it's a first come, first serve deal. A convenient out for the spammers, yes?

This silicon heart bleeds for you, gentle reader, though there's an urge to add, "Let this be a lesson to you." If Silver Carrot doesn't come through, drop by the Voice and we'll go out for a bucket of the Colonel's finest. Mr. Roboto's treat.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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