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Savoring spam: A true story's Rachel Konrad ventures out to learn firsthand what happens when you agree to one of those "once in a lifetime" e-mail offers that regularly flood the Web.

I had an epiphany last month while deleting spam.

Although I filter about half of the 300 daily junk e-mails I receive, I spend an hour a day spurning spam that sneaks past filters. That's nearly 11 days per year.

But spam seems to be a necessary evil--and, if my inbox is any indication, a mounting one. So I decided to reprogram my anti-spam bias. I decided to savor--not spit out--the next slice of spam I received.

Within seconds, I received an invitation to attend the Internet Cash Flow Conference sponsored by Orem, Utah-based I would learn "a way to make more money, spend more time with your family, or simply enjoy a better lifestyle." I RSVPed for the event, which promised not to be "some 'pie in the sky' business opportunity."

A week later, I arrived at a San Francisco Holiday Inn with about 50 people, including a busload of senior citizens and several men who seemed to be homeless. After we applied name tags, a guy in army fatigues chugged a protein drink, stood up and proclaimed, "God bless America!"

Jason Porter, our "Internet trainer," commanded the crackling microphone. When he asked how many people had e-mail, about half the attendants raised hands. But nearly everyone agreed: "There was money to be made on the Internet."

Porter then described a litany of small businesses that had become cash cows through e-commerce, including a surfing academy, a tumbleweed farm, and a toy poodle kennel. When four attendants said they were aspiring authors, Porter spoke of "Gary," who published half of a mystery novel online and asked readers for $5 to get the last half sent to them as an e-mail attachment. He sold 1,500 copies in one month, Porter said.

"It was just like the plumber who gave away free information about how to disassemble the sink," Porter said to whooping laughter and applause. "Who do you think cashed in when they needed their sinks put back together?"

After we applied name tags, a guy in army fatigues chugged a protein drink, stood up and proclaimed, "God bless America!"
Porter, who studied physical education and coached basketball and volleyball, also waxed about his own success as an entrepreneur.

In the early '90s, he couldn't make enough money to feed his family as a gym teacher, so he moved to Western Samoa and opened his own surf shop for tourists. The Samoan government gave him a grant to put his surf shop online.

But his Samoan-born wife started missing American-style malls, so the couple came back to the United States after three years. Porter joined StoresOnline to "get people excited about doing business online."

Porter was also eager to help StoresOnline make money. After encouraging the crowd to start their own businesses, he urged us to spend $30 for a second conference, during which we would learn secrets of Web design and online marketing.

But building an online business is "hard work," Porter said, and few become Web gurus after an eight-hour session. So StoresOnline will design a site for $2,500. It will host sites for $2,200 per year.

But wait! There's more! StoresOnline will waive the $2,500 fee for people who immediately agree to the $2,200 hosting. And it will give a $15 rebate for the eight-hour seminar for people who sign up during the 90-minute introduction.

Porter emphasized that his pitch was not a solicitation--but rather the beginning of a "mutually beneficial business relationship" that enriches both parties.

I also bristled at the hard sell, which smacked of a Hawaiian condo time-share pitch.
"At the end of the year, when you write the check for $2,200, what do you say to us? Thank you," Porter said. "What do we say? Thank you. In my estimation, it's a no-brainer."

The crowd agreed. About 35 out of 50 people signed up for the daylong seminar.

One of the few people who didn't was Jason Barnett, a 31-year-old deli clerk and amateur guitarist in San Francisco who wants to move to a Northern California town such as Eureka or Ukiah and sell his music online. The former Jehovah's Witness, who spent two years spreading God's word door-to-door, was impressed with Porter's proselytizing. But Barnett wasn't in the mood for this particular sermon.

"This guy was really a good speaker--very persuasive," he said. "But I'm just not ready to take my business online. That's really what I learned."

I also bristled at the hard sell, which smacked of a Hawaiian condo time-share pitch. I returned to my office and called Dr. Daniel J. Howard, an expert in consumer behavior at Southern Methodist University. The professor guessed that a large percentage of the conference attendants would sign up for Web hosting.

"When people hear that magic phrase, 'Be your own boss; own your own business,' they get extremely excited," Howard said. "The reality is very different. Most new businesses in the United States fail every year. Most of the people who believe are people who are naive, generally uneducated--the same people who gamble and believe in the lottery."

Far be it for me to be lumped into the naive and uneducated masses. So, I immediately reverted to my former habit, regularly deleting spam. But I did get something from my epiphany: a free lunch of Diet Coke, potato chips and a ham sandwich.

Isn't Spam made out of ham?