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An avalanche of e-mail crowds my digital inbox, most of it useless

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 5:29 PM

Some of you may be too young, but I remember a time before there were e-mail inboxes. Oh, there were inboxes, but they were, you know, boxes - boxes made of wood, metal or, rarely (okay, never), rubies.

These inboxes had a finite physical space and thus constrained what you might find inside.

Not like today, when a near-infinite avalanche of e-mail crowds our digital inboxes. And the vast majority of that e-mail is either useless, boring or outright dangerous.

For example, I've been receiving an increasing number of missives from Chinese factory owners. They seem to think I'm in the market for industrial motors, office furniture, wire, animatronic dinosaurs and breathalyzers.

I guess these messages are the digital equivalent of cold calls: millions of pitch letters sent to random e-mail addresses in the off chance one will arrive just as the recipient is thinking: "Why did I ever decide to become an animatronic dinosaur retailer? I don't have any product! If only I could find someone to make me a whole bunch of animatronic dinosaurs. Wait, what's this e-mail? 'Hello. I am China dinosaur factory. Hope that you know our product more. Also hope that we can establish long-term cooperative relation.' Eureka! I'm saved."

That's a quote from an actual e-mail, by the way, an e-mail that included photos of animatronic dinosaurs.

Then there are the e-mails that I know are scams, but I'm not quite sure how they're scams. The latest one has the subject line "Pet Advert." It purports to be from someone who wants to take out an ad offering teacup Yorkie puppies free to a good home. I'm sure if I responded they'd eventually ask for my banking details, but it seems an odd way to rip someone off. Do people really believe there are dog owners who can't get rid of their puppies on their own and must appeal to strangers for help?

But my favorite recent would-be swindle came from FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Or make that "FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C." Someone pretending to be FBI chief Robert Mueller (complete with photo!) explains that the "Intelligence Network Monitoring System" has detected that I am being scammed by some African bankers and, oddly, professional soccer officials. Luckily, Director Mueller is authorized to give me $11 million, which he will put on an ATM card, which I can use to "withdraw money from any ATM MACHINE CENTER anywhere in the world with a maximum of $4000 to $5000 United States daily."

That's some ATM card.

And some chutzpah. An FBI spokesman told me the bureau is aware of this scam. Mueller has even made reference to it in a speech on cybersecurity.

Finally, this was the subject line of another e-mail I received: "Read this mail for humanity."

I deleted it unread. Sorry, humanity.

The grifters?

Then there are face-to-face scams. A reader named Ronnie called last week to say she was parked at 17th and P streets NW not long ago when a man came up and started gesturing at her. "I thought he wanted my parking spot," she said.

No. He wanted . . . what? The man said something about how he had locked his keys in his car at Whole Foods, lived in the area and, presumably, wanted Ronnie's help.

"He even said, 'I'm not going to hurt you,' " Ronnie said.

She didn't stick around to find out. She kept the window closed, the door locked and drove away.

Ronnie wonders whether he really did need help. "He looked like a perfectly normal, professional guy," she said.

I think about how far down the list I would have to go to arrive at "Approach strange woman on the street." I mean, before that, I would cycle through: Call locksmith; call friend; call co-worker; ask Whole Foods manager. I think I'd even walk home, break into my house and get a second set of keys before running the risk of looking like a creep.

But sometimes people do find themselves in binds and legitimately need a good Samaritan, right? Please share your stories. Have you had interactions that turned out to be scams? Scams that you've successfully avoided? Incidents that looked like scams but weren't? Or did you lock your keys in your car near Whole Foods?

E-mail me at the address below. I promise no salesman will call.

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