I don't get many letters from the United States. So it was exciting to receive one with a genuine stamp from the land of Uncle Sam. It was even more thrilling, upon opening it, to discover that I had been selected as an "honoree" in an annual award ceremony due to take place in New York.
I was not sure what an honoree was but it sounded good. Apparently, I'd been chosen for the values my website gave to the online world. I had a good chance of an award in one of over 125 categories up for contention – mine was financial compliance.
It was sent from an online "academy" - not quite the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which dishes out the Oscars. So I would probably not get a chance to meet screen legends and thank my family. Still, the beautifully embossed paper was impressive. And so were the words.
It said: "Congratulations. This is an outstanding achievement for you and your team. The honoree distinction is in recognition of all your remarkable work over the past year. We thank you and your team for creating brilliant work for us to recognise and admire. We are truly honoured to honour you."
But I don't have a website...
Hold on a minute. I don't have a website. I don't have a team. But many years ago, I created a corporate name with the word compliance in it – the letter was sent to me as the owner of this now very much non-existent (and not at all missed) firm.
It seems I was selected from over 10,000 in my category alone. And to be an "honoree" I had to score in the top 15% of the group. That makes me somewhere between one and around 1,500.
I had, of course, never entered for this award because I do not have a website and have never even heard of the awards.
What happens next
If I had responded – out of vanity or just curiosity – then two things would have happened. I would firstly have been invited to take a table at a gala dinner. A ten place setting is listed at $5,000. That's out of my league – leaving aside the fares and hotels bills for a New York visit.
I could still, however, push myself from being an honoree to a nominee by sending a $50 entry fee. And I could celebrate my achievement with a personal framed certificate, hand produced by a firm dating back to the 18th century. These came in various sizes and frame qualities, so I could decide how much to spend on my team's wonderful achievement.
My award was just one of scores that are sent out all the time. They cover everything from the finest finance to the coolest cat, via the hottest hotrod site. Some of these are genuine, run by enthusiasts to celebrate their tiny corner of the world wide web. Some are jokes – the "worst" series. But a fair number are money-grabbing tricks.
How the scam works
The method is easy. Some refer to genuine awards such as the Oscars or the Baftas -but they have no connection whatsoever.
They flatter someone into thinking they have been nominated and then shortlisted for an award with value. But those who fall for it are suckers.
At each stage, those up for the award can only progress if they pay more. Mostly American, these sites can start with as little as $50 and move all the way up to $1,000 or more. And that's not counting the expensive framed certificates or the cost of the over the top cost-wise "ceremony" where entrants will be ripped off for food, drink and entertainment.
Often, for those who get that far, the judging process is obscure. I've judged a few journalism awards and I know it is very hard work. You have to read all the entries, meet with fellow judges and then spend at least one evening in heated discussions. And it's not paid.
There are other ways, including mysterious and non-audited online ballots straight out of the North Korean franchise manual and which make Eurovision Song Contests look like a model form of voting.
But if you "win" - and some manage to make almost everyone who pays enough into a winner – you can spend yet more money on what is called a "tasteful statuette". Well, the ones that I have seen are not to my taste.