Free tickets for a mystery airline? Or a sneaky marketing ploy?

John Kelly
Columnist March 4, 2013

I receive so many questionable e-mail come-ons that I actually felt a little nostalgic when I opened my physical mailbox not long ago and found a “Travel Check Voucher” inside.

The outside of the correspondence was imprinted with “Personal and Confidential,” “Final Notice” and, more menacingly, “These documents are on record as being sent to you.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Wow. On record. Must be pretty serious.

I tore off the perforated edges to reveal my “Award Notification.” The top half was a “Dear John” letter (I’m used to getting those) informing me that I could redeem my “Travel Check Voucher” for “a certificate” for two round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the continental United States.

“We have attempted contacting you on several occasions,” read a line printed in bold-face type.

It was a boldfaced line, or as I like to call it, a baldfaced lie. I have no memory of anyone trying to contact me once, let alone on several occasions.

The bottom half is what I suppose was really meant by “Travel Check Voucher.” It looked like a check and was made out to “American Airways on behalf of John Kelly” for the amount of $1,298. The printed signature was by someone with the memorable name of “Shea Steil.” The memo line noted: “Must Be Redeemed for travel certificate.”

I love deconstructing these things. What is a “Travel Check Voucher,” anyway? It sounds like “travelers check” but isn’t. And are the plane tickets for use on something called “American Airways”? There isn’t such an airline.

As instructed, I called the toll-free number and a nice young man named Josh explained that a new wholesale travel agency called American Travel Deals had opened in Arlington County and was eager to “get their name out in the market.” The agency wanted me to attend a presentation — “no strings attached, nor purchases required.”

Josh couldn’t give me the address in Arlington of the new travel agency. I asked to speak to his supervisor but as of my deadline hadn’t heard back.

I did speak with Edward Johnson of the Better Business of Bureau of Metropolitan Washington. He said his office had fielded complaints about the mailing, which he described as a “marketing ploy.”

Said Edward: “Most consumers feel that the company is not being forthright. . . . It’s designed to get your attention, lure you in, then there’s the catch. And you’ll find out about it at the appointment. It would probably be very helpful if the company would be up front and tell you what’s going to happen at the appointment, so you can decide whether you want to waste your time going down there.”

As for me, I think not.

Spam? A lot.

I think the strangest spam e-mails I receive are those shotgun mailings that offer various commodities from developing countries. Is there really a clerk sitting in an office in Shanghai or Doha, Qatar, who believes I’m just waiting to purchase his bulk bauxite?

I usually delete these things unread, but occasionally I find irresistible poetry in their subject headings. For example: “We need to chicken.”

I’d never seen “chicken” as a verb before. Even stranger, the e-mail had nothing to do with chicken unless they meant chicken of the sea. “We wish to inform you that we can supply to you the canned tuna as per your demand,” read the e-mail.

For just $475 per metric ton, they would send me tuna from Cameroon “branded according and in buyer’s label in indelible ink or paint in the English language [sic!].”

It’s tempting, isn’t it? The perfect gift for the person who has everything, everything except a metric ton — i.e., 2,205 pounds — of fine Cameroonian tuna?

I’ve noticed that spam e-mails come in thematic waves. For a while, it was those “Dear Beloved” ones offering to cut me in on the millions that a Ni­ger­ian prince had squirreled away. Then there were those e-mails that wanted me to post a pet-for-sale ad. (I never could figure how those worked.)

Spam offering to enhance my manhood ebbs and flows, as do the lonely Russian women eager for my hand in marriage. (Vladimir Putin: Do something about this.)

Recently, I’ve been getting spam with the subject line: “These 3 questions will turn on any woman.”

Fearing a nasty virus, I haven’t opened the e-mails. But I do wonder what those three questions could possibly be.

Hey babe, I lost my phone number. Can I have yours?

I dropped the keys to my Ferrari. Can you help me find them?

Or maybe: Care to come upstairs and see my metric ton of tuna?

To read previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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