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by Pat Dooris

Bio | Email | Follow: @PatDoorisKGW

Posted on May 8, 2006 at 10:26 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:40 PM

By Nicole Doll

This was an unusual assignment.

To be quite honest, when I first heard about the concept, I immediately thought no one would be gullible enough to hand over all thier personal information for a five dollar bill! Identity theft is such a huge problem, here in Oregon and across the country, I assumed people would see the scam coming a mile away. But we were, unfortunately, wrong.

The set-up was quite simple. A Better Business Bureau employee posed as an officer from the U.S. Department of Spam Control. Of course, there is no Department of Spam Control. It was our invention. Our "federal officer" then walked around Downtown Portland telling people the government was concerned about spam going to our home and e-mail addresses. Portland had been chosen as a test market to stop spam. All she needed them to do was fill out her very official-looking form. The form asked for their name, address, social security number, e-mail address and password.

Here's where it gets interesting. To sweeten the deal, she was authorized to pay each person who signed up five dollars!

Now, if you think about it, five dollars really won't go that far these days. A combo meal at a fast food joint, a gallon and a half of gas is about all you can get. But would it be enough to tempt people to sell thier identities?

Mnay people walked right past our "federal officer" without a second glance.
It turned out though, for some, five dollars was the right price. In all fairness, our form did look rather official. But, if you looked closely, the fine print made it clear it was a product of KGW and the Better Business Bureau. Even reading, "For the lure of a five dollar bill, I have actually given a complete stranger my personal information..." Those who took the bait told us the woman looked nice and seemed friendly. One man told us while the form looked a little suspicious, the money was incentive enough.

Our "federal officer," Brooke Berard of the Better Business Bureau, said she hoped our experiment would be a helpful, though cautionary tale, a not-so-subtle reminder that scam artists are everywhere. Nine million Americans were in some way affected by identity theft last year alone. She says it okay to ask questions and ALWAYS, ALWAYS read the fine print.