What the envelope really contained was a life lesson

"I saw an ad in the paper about work that I want to try," my son Ben began. "The ad said I could make money stuffing envelopes. Wouldn't that be great? I could do it at home, no driving anywhere, and I would get paid. I want to try it this summer. Can I?" At 13, Ben is eager to grow up. He can't wait to be 16, so he can get a "real" job. Not delivering papers, mowing lawns, or babysitting pets and homes while the neighbors vacation. This one looked irresistible.

"Do they want you to send money?" I asked.

"$24.95, but it's guaranteed. It says if I don't make money with their plan, they will refund my money. What's to lose?" Ben pleaded.

We read the fine print together. They had all the bases covered. The plan was to send out a packet of information that would get Ben started making money immediately. It was "so simple, anyone could do it," and many were reportedly having success with it. The guarantee was offered only if the worker made an honest attempt to try to carry out the program.

I didn't have a confident feeling about the envelope-stuffing business. All I could offer Ben was my opinion, my skepticism that I didn't think it would be worth spending the money. But I had no proof, and he wasn't convinced.

I suggested my usual "let's wait and think about it" plan that always works when I am tempted to buy the $2,200 lifetime-guaranteed vacuum cleaner or the $5,000 resurfaced cabinets that will bring my kitchen into the 21st century. This young entrepreneur wouldn't give up.

Days later, we agreed that if he wanted to spend his own money, he had permission. If the envelope-stuffing business was a failure, $24.95 would not be the worst mistake he would ever make with his savings. Happily, he stamped the envelope and eagerly awaited the start of a new career.

A few weeks later Ben ran in from school with a large manila envelope tucked under his arm. Inside were several sheets of paper with information typed on them: How to place your ads. A description of how to contact local newspapers and magazines, and how to word ads that will lure people to send you a check for $24.95. A list of publications that may accept your ads. I had not heard of a single magazine on this list. All of them were listed as potential places to begin the business.

And, of course, the premier piece: "How I made $5,000 a week at home." One person after another was quoted as saying that he or she had tried this business and couldn't believe how easy it was to make money at home.

The envelope-stuffing idea was not really stuffing envelopes at all. (Surprise.) The plan to make money covered directions on how to place ads in newspapers and magazines. The ads asked people to call our phone number and buy directions (for only $24.95!) from Ben on setting up an envelope-stuffing business.

Ben read the papers and looked up at me. "Where are the envelopes they said they were sending?" he asked.

"It looks like a business where you place ads and try to get people like us to pay for what you paid for, those pieces of paper you're holding," I said.

"Can I place an ad in the Gazette?" He was ready to try it, no matter what they were asking him to do.

"Maybe the Better Business Bureau has information about these types of businesses," I said. "How about if you call and tell them about what you're thinking of doing and then we'll talk."

Ben dialed the number, still sure he wanted to try this scheme - I mean job. I wasn't sure how to talk him out of it and hoped the BBB could wake him up to what he was doing. He was still undeterred. He had spent his money and he wanted to try to recoup it.

The BBB operator finished her speech, and I could tell it had been convincing.

"She said it would be mail fraud if we placed the ads," Ben said glumly. "That our phone number and address could be used to convict us. I won't do it. But how come all these other people are doing it and getting away with it?"

"Maybe they aren't getting away with it," I said. "We see the ads, but we don't know if they have gotten calls about mail fraud. Do you really want to make money deceiving people?"

Ben shook his head. "They weren't honest with me about their business. I believed the ads and now I've wasted my money."

After a few sad days, Ben came up with a new plan of attack. He decided to fight back with a letter to the people who had placed the ad and cashed his check. In the letter, he mentioned mail fraud and demanded his money back.

Within a week he received a note with a full-refund check. That was the final surprise with the envelope-stuffing business.

This summer, he has a paid internship with the local cable TV station. Now when he reads the want ads and dreams about future jobs, he points to envelope stuffing, winks at me, and says "Mom, have I got the perfect job for you."

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