Most scams and con-artist scenarios you read about are Internet-based, simply because the Internet is such a commonplace form of communication these days.
Still, for all the articles you see warning against email phishing scams, fraudulent dating-site profiles or fake phone calls allegedly from Microsoft or other reputable tech companies, it's important to remember that thieves and fraudsters existed long before the Internet, and letters sent to your old-fashioned mailbox can be just as dishonest as the worst misspelled email allegedly from a Nigerian prince.
Last week a reader I'll call “Richard” wrote in to warn others away from a bizarre group called “Neothink.” Before wising up to the scammy nature of the offer, Richard had spent several hundred dollars buying overpriced books that promised and failed to deliver all sorts of valuable secret information.
Incidentally, the first time I did a Google search for “Neothink,” one of the auto-complete options offered was “Neothink cult.” (General rule: if you type a company name into a search engine and the autocomplete results include that company alongside words like “scam,” “fraud” or “cult,” that's usually a bad sign.) But searching for “Neothink” wouldn't have protected Richard in any case, because he never actually saw the word until after he'd already shelled out over $130.
Your eyes only!
It all started last October, when Richard went to his mailbox and found a red-and-blue envelope “that looked like it came from overseas,” as he put it. Inside was a typewritten eight-page letter from an anonymous writer; the letterhead said it was from “The League” and “For your eyes only!”
Typing just “The League” into a search engine nets too many millions of responses to be of any use. But if you type in the phrase “The League for your eyes only” the first entry that comes up is a RipoffReport.com scam alert telling a story similar to Richard's.
But what did the letter actually say? Eight pages of flattery starting with this introduction: “We are the rich, the famous, the powerful — and the crème de la crème of society; famous sports and movie stars, musicians, billionaires, businessmen, intellectuals, and scientists. Congratulations are in order. You have been chosen to join us.”
When Richard initially wrote us about his Neothink experience, he said:
“Let me tell you a very little about me and my state of mind at the time. I'm a 61-year-old man who has his own business. When the Neothink letter arrived it was the end of my seasonal business and financially it was the second worst in 22 years. Needless to say I was stressed out and feeling like a major loser and more than a little depressed. I was ripe for being taken advantage of.... Looking back now I find it hard to believe I fell for this, but I did.”
(That's one of the sad ironies of life: when you're already down for whatever reason — economic stress, health concerns, romantic unhappiness or whatever — you often find yourself most vulnerable to scams exactly when you're least able to handle that additional problem on top of everything else going wrong lately.)
Anyway, the more Richard read the letter the more flattered he became. The letter even appeared to address any possible anti-scam concerns; on page two it said (bold print and punctuation errors lifted from the original):
Again, I know what you're thinking, “This can't be real. It must be a scam of some kind.” Let me assure you that everything I've told you and am about to tell you is genuine …. I'm not a salesman and I don't want you to buy anything. I don't want your money. And you don't have to commit to anything in order to get something invaluable from the League.
The letter went on to make all sorts of amazing claims: the League knows various amazing but unspecified “secrets,” and page three made the bold-print statement “Every successful person throughout history knew the secrets.” Albert Einstein belonged to the League, which is why he knew he'd win his Nobel Prize a couple years before he actually got it.
The letter strongly implies (but never actually states) that its writer is former president Bill Clinton -- someone you definitely know about if you watch TV, read the news or have an Internet connection; someone who currently has “all the wealth, power, sex and authority that I will ever need,” yet grew up poor and underprivileged in the South; someone with early childhood experiences exactly mirroring those of former President Clinton — especially details regarding the occupations and finances of the real Clinton's mother, father and stepfather.
A small select group
The letter later mentions that there really is a small select group of people secretly controlling the world – less than 3,000 people in all, and they would like to invite Richard to join them. (As Richard later said to us, regarding his state of mind when he fell for the letter: “I thought it was like the da Vinci code or something!”)
Richard responded and soon got a second letter in the mail — more flattery coupled with an offer to sell him a book of League “secrets.” He sent them a check and when the book arrived, only then did he learn that the mysterious “League” was actually an organization called Neothink.
Remember when I mentioned how typing “Neothink” into Google leads to the suggested search terms “Neothink cult?” Click on that search option, and the first page of search results includes Ripoffreport.com's archived complaints about a “Mark Hamilton,” who Richard also mentioned in his letter:
The second blue and red trimmed letter arrived in a week or so with another deadline and a price tag for the manuscript of knowledge. The cost was $135 if I remember correctly. … The Manuscript arrives with another letter of praise that also informed me I needed a second manuscript to explain the first and unlock "The Secrets" hidden within. I wrote a check and sent it. ...Mark Hamilton wrote the Neothink manuscript. Google him but beware my friends.
Others shared similar tales on Ripoffreport. “Charles W.” wrote on Jan. 31 that the Neothink book cost him $139, but he was told it is written in “code” and cracking the code will require another book costing $100.
Neothink sometimes goes (or went) by the name Neotech; as early as 2008, Pissedconsumer.com posted warnings from people who'd been scammed by "The League," the "Secret Society" or “Neotech” -- bought a book promising secrets, then told to buy another book in order to crack the “code.”
I asked Richard to describe the book and maybe share some examples of the secrets (coded or not) it contains. He promptly emailed to say: “The book is a fictional account of 'Miss Annabelle' and her 7 or 8 super children who solve all the problems of man.”
He gave more details when we chatted on the phone; the novel sounds like a badly written sci-fi utopia. “Miss Annabelle's kids are geniuses,” Richard said. “I mean, these kids, they get rid of death. Nobody dies.” One of Miss Annabelle's super-genius offspring grows up to become a surgeon who first figures out how to transplant human heads onto different bodies, then does something involving either clones or computers to create brand-new bodies for any person who needs one, ergo no more death.
Another kid becomes president of the new and improved USA thanks to something called the “Twelve Visions Party” (another phrase netting plenty of scam reports and alarm bells when typed into an online search engine).
But did the book contain any actual, useful “secrets” or advice — even such obvious non-secret stuff as “Here's some budgeting tips to improve your finances” or “If you work out more, you might become stronger”? In other words, anything which normal, non-superhuman people might actually emulate to improve their own lives? Richard thought about that for a moment before saying “No, nothing like that — everybody was just a genius.”
Needless to say, the second book, which allegedly deciphered the “code” necessary to glean useful secrets out of the first book, did no such thing.
Were this a literary critique rather than a scam report, I could go on for some time about the book's storyline. Instead, I'll tell you what I found online about Neothink and Mark Hamilton: on his own blog, in a 2009 post asking “Who is Mark Hamilton and what is Neothink?” Hamilton or his press writer modestly proclaimed,
The author Mark Hamilton is arguably the first person since MLK with a grand, world-changing vision for mankind. Only this time, it’s not just a dream. It is so much more.... The Twelve Visions Party seeks to rid the government of this destructive “ruling class” once and for all. So what will be the benefit from this? Imagine becoming a millionaire without having to lift a finger. Imagine having total financial freedom and living the life you were meant to live. Imagine having a job that you actually loved and couldn’t wait to get to every morning. Imagine yourself having superior intelligence. Imagine having perfect health, even in old age. Imagine discovering and never losing that falling in love feeling with your partner. Imagine becoming slim and sexy, without even trying!
The publicly available website for “Active Neothink Members” makes similarly grandiose claims: among other things, it offers the chance to join the Twelve Visions Party, or hang out in “Neothink clubhouses” that will “send your monetary and romantic success soaring.” (However, you can't view the clubhouse directory or learn the location of the clubhouse nearest you unless you first buy a membership for at least $30 per month. Even this opportunity might be limited to those who've already shelled out the hundreds of dollars necessary to become an official Neothink “manuscript reader” — the website isn't clear one way or the other.)
There's also the chance to join “The Association for Curing Aging” which offers “the secret formula for curing aging,” though when you “click to read more” you once again hit a member-only paywall if you want to solve the “Superpuzzle” (another Neospeak buzzword).
Richard said he never actually visited the Neothink website, though he did take part in a couple of members-only conference calls where, despite the exalted promises made in the initial letter, none of the other participants were luminaries like Bill Clinton, or any other movers-and-shakers for that matter.
Those members-only phone chats were what first made Richard suspect that Neothink and the League weren't all those initial letters claimed.
“It made me think of Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid,” Richard said, though he was quick to clarify that nobody was literally promoting mass suicide. What he did hear was pointless feelgood positive-thinking platitudes: “I was listening to this one woman saying, like, this other woman was dying of terminal cancer but handling it with such grace.”
So Richard “snapped out of it,” so to speak, and realized what he would've known all along, had he not been so low and vulnerable when he first saw that letter: even assuming there actually is a shadowy cabal of super-rich and super-powerful people secretly running the world — they don't need to peddle $135 manuscripts or $30 membership fees to keep themselves afloat.
Or, as Richard said later, with a sadder-but-wiser laugh: "I told my friend and he was like, 'Are you a f---ing idiot?'"