Salutations, Suspicious Minds!
Yes, I know this blog is deader than the Professional Pog Circuit, but occasionally things happen to me which provide some inspiration. Case in point: this unsolicited, non-sequitur email I received back on March 14'th:
I saw here, that you've written about cars. If you’ll be covering similar topics in the future, such as auto tech (like driverless cars), or safety tips for new parents using carseats or new teen drivers, I’d love to be a source or contribute a unique article.
Are you taking pitches?
Now, just because I'm a nice guy I'm not gonna use her real name. So, for the purpose of this sordid tale I'll just call her "Fibby McSneakypants" or some derivation thereof.
So, let's take a quick inventory here. On the plus side, the email is lucid and well-composed; unlike the typical "Nigerian Price"/ "English language set on frappé"-style of diction that typically characterizes the average phishing scam. On the other hand, there were a few things that made my "Spider-Sense" go off like the warning klaxons on a star destroyer.
First off, my last blog entry was back in October. Ever since I started writing for actual money as opposed to loose bits of string and dead budgerigars, I haven't been posting here very much. So, I really couldn't conceive why someone would want to be published on an obscure, borderline-defunct blog.
'Well, maybe they're a fledgling writer looking to establish a portfolio,' I thinks to meself. 'Baphomet knows I could have used some help when I first got started, so maybe I'll humor her.'
Now, if you read the article that she's referring to, it bears as much resemblance to cars as Ted Cruz does to a human being. The piece is all about making universities teach courses that will give students genuine life skills instead of imparting theoretical and / impractical nonsense.
As such, my two speculative automotive courses were:
First Car 100 This class will give students valuable advise on how to buy their first vehicle without getting sucked into a maelstrom of hidden charges. After learning how to avoid paying salesmen to do their own jobs, students will be given several creative suggestions as to what orifice will best accommodate the dealership's sleazy 'Administrative Fees'
Car Maintenance and Repair 102 This course teaches students the importance of having a friend as an auto mechanic and how to determine what shops in your area are guilty of overt rip-offery. Please note: any students who have already completed Canadian Tire Avoidance 101 will receive partial credit towards Car Maintenance and Repair 103.
So, Kind Reader, the question I put to you is: what the actual eff does any of that have to do with driver-less vehicles, car-seats or the perils of zit-covered teenagers drunkenly careening all over the road, armed only with a learning permit and an unwarranted sense of immortality?
But, hey, once again, I'm a nice guy and so I just assumed that these topics were within her wheelhouse and she felt comfortable writing about them.
Sure, I'm nice but I'm also inherently suspicious and guarded, mainly because a disproportionate number of humans I've met over the years come pre-loaded with ulterior motives. The specter of "Exhibit Y" soon presented itself when a simple Google-fication of her email address led me directly to an outfit called Taktical Digital.
So what's this place all about? Well according to their minimalist webzone:
"Taktical Digital is an internationally recognized performance digital marketing agency. With an obsessive focus on maximizing ROI, Taktical Digital clients have seen tremendous revenue driving success across e-commerce and lead generation verticals. We are an industry leader in paid social advertising, search marketing and lead generation."
Sorry, I gotta pause for a sec. Reading all that CorporateSpeak in one go has a tendency to make me break out in hives.
Full disclosure: I can't prove that the Fibster works for Taktical Digital. I just think its telling that their site is the only thing that pops up when I search just her email suffix (@takticalmail.com).
With this revealed I was 99.9% sure that it was all going to be a colossal waste of time. But then I thought, why not have some fun with it? At the very least, I might come out the other end with an amusing anecdote; sort of a virtual version of one of my earliest job experiences, but, this time out, I'D be the one carrying the oversized tote bag, bee-hotch.
So I proceeded to execute Step One in my plan: radio silence. In fact, I let a full week go by before she sent me the following missive:
Hi again - I just wanted to follow up as see if you had a chance to read my previous email.
Let me know if you are interested in a guest contribution from us - we love to get involved.
Thanks for your time,
Needless to say, after reading this it was on like Rae Dawn Chong. So I wrote back first thing the very next day:
I'm always interested in guest contributors to my blog. Unfortunately I'm not in the position
to pay writers at the moment.
If that isn't a deal-breaker, I'd be more than willing to publish an article on a topic of your choice, perhaps with the inclusion of an appropriate ad or link to something that you're keen to promote.
The only criterion is that the post's style has to dovetail with the established spirit of the blog, I.E. "a humorous exploration of education, career, employment, lifestyle, politics and pop culture."
Other guidelines include:
- 200-600 word length.
- Well-researched with supporting links.
- Conversational, breezy tone with liberal doses of relevant comedy.
To my complete and utter lack of surprise, this came back a few short hours later:
Thanks for getting back to me--that sounds absolutely perfect to me!
I have a couple of ideas for you:
- How much will driverless cars cost?
- Issues with drowsy driving laws and the efforts in preventing driving accidents
- Have ride-sharing services led to a notable drop in DUI Accidents?
Even though the answer to her question was a resounding "NOPE", I was kinda getting into it. So I did my best Arianna Huffington impersonation and wrote back:
Hi, Fib! Can I call you Fib?
Your suggestions have really gotten my brain percolating.
One related subject that I'd love to see explored is the current aptitude of driverless cars. How reliable is the AI at this stage? What kind of preliminary service records do they have? How do driverless cars cope with anomalous road conditions or emergency situations? What improvements can we expect as technology advances exponentially?
Not only could this be an informative topic for readers, it could also be a great framework to hang some observational humor on. What do you think? Is there an angle there?
Her response, which arrived early the following day, clearly indicated that this marlin was decidedly on-hook.
I think you're on to something... A piece about the reliability of AI could be really great. And I definitely think we could work some humor in, too!
I'll get started on it right away. Our turn around time is about two weeks, so I should reach back out by April 6 with your finished piece.
After reading this I was tempted to lean back in my pneumatic chair, adjust my monocle, stroke my pussy and begin cackling uncontrollably like Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But instead I just sat there and thought 'Huh, I wonder if this person is actually on the up-and-up?'
This thought was particularly strident when I received the following email on April the 2'nd at 2:09 in the pee em:
I hope all is well! Here is your finished piece.
Let me know what you think! I'm happy to make any edits or changes you think are necessary.
I sat blinking at this for a little while, like the (in)box at the end of Se7en. After dealing with a few pressing personal deadlines, I finally sat down at the end of the day, clicked on the attachment and gave the article the once-over.
It was good. I'd have to tweak a few things but nothing major. So I responded thusly:
Thanks for sending this through. It's been crazy busy on my end and I've only had a cursory glance but it looks great!
I'm going to set aside a few hours tomorrow to review and post it. Related question: are there any personal links you'd like to include with the story? Your own blog? Website? LinkedIn page? Let me know.
Thanks in advance!
Forty-five minutes later I get this:
I'm glad to hear its looking good so far, I hope it holds up to snuff when you give it a closer look tomorrow!
There are no personal links that need to be included on our end.
I'm looking forward to hearing what you think!
Now, before we go any further I really need to draw your attention to the line "there are no personal links that need to be included on our end". Beyond the not-even-vaguely-suspicious "our end" reference, this entire statement is patently false. Show me a creative person that doesn't wanna flog their amateurish self-published book (guilty), lame blog (present company included), self-indulgent podcast (ditto) or boring Twitch stream (give me time) I'll show you a filthy, filthy liar.
So the next day I went over the article with a fine tooth comb, scanning for literary lice. Despite the fact that the content was about as funny as a syphilis diagnosis, the story read rather well. Even more encouraging: a quick Google search seemed to bear out her claim that the article was original, at least in part. The very last thing I needed to do was to verify the links.
Even this looked promising. I clicked on every single one of them and was pleasantly surprised. Her claim that Americans were still largely skeptical about driver-less cars was backed up with a related article from the Insurance Journal. A potential falling out between Tesla and Nvidia was documented by an appropriate report from CNBC. A twenty-seven page study panel report from Stanford lent credence to her claim that driver-less cars will help bolster the public's trust of AI.
But then I noticed something weird. Like really weird.
Her main thesis, that driver-less cars will eventually reduce accidents and injuries, should have been the easiest thing to link. Hell, after a quick bash at the ol' Google-O-Meter I came up with this, this and this.
But, no, instead she'd embedded a link to a website for this sketchy, ambulance-chasing law firm that specializes in car accident personal injury cases. I scanned through the page looking for any shred of supporting information but the only thing I got was a pop up query from "Mike", who was manning the site's online support desk.
"Hi there! Would you like to tell me about your case for a free legal evaluation?" he chirpily inquired.
"Um, no thank you," I typed back in a daze, immediately wondering why I'd gone through the bother of typing "um".
And with that, funny l'il fascinatin' Fibby finally stood exposed. She was contacting backwater blogs like mine with an offer to write vaguely-related articles for the express purpose of sneaking in some back-door, borderline subliminal advertising for a skeezy law firm. With another quick search I found an eerily similar article of hers which had been published on a site that looked a lot more legit than my lame-ass blog. And, hey, guess what? She used the exact same incongruous "source" to "back up" the exact same claim.
Hmmmmm, I wonder why the publisher later "redacted this article to conform to our style and usage guidelines."
With the scam now revealed I could easily have fucked with her mercilessly. It took every bit of my willpower not to respond with this:
"Hey, yeah, this is great an' all, toots, but the tone is waaaay too egg-headed and dry for the tens and tens of people who read my blog. So, lissen, I needs you to punch up tha funny. Can't we just make up a news story about how one o' these fancy-assed smart cars went all HAL-9000 on its owner? Mebbe after missing one too many detailing appointments the car snaps and tries to kill the driver by sealing the windows and reversing the exhaust? Oh, and wouldn't it be funny if we said the car found a radio station that was playing Pink Floyd's 'Goodbye Cruel World' while it did the deed? LOOOL!"
Instead I decided to act my age and and replied:
We're almost ready to go. Just a few things.
As an unabashed Canucklehead, I'd prefer we said NORTH Americans instead of just Americans, with a link to match. If we can't find a link with the same verbiage, no worries.
Also, the link you provided to back up your injury claim takes readers to an actual law firm with a very pro-active chat representative who immediately starts to bombard visitors with free consultation offers. Perhaps you can just link an article with some basic stats RE: auto-related injuries in North America last year.
Finally, every one of my entries includes an EPIC / FAIL. The first is a link to a good news story about the topic and the latter is a comedic glass-half-empty observation. There can be written articles or links to videos. Please let me know what you'd like to include to cap off this great article.
So, bless her heart, she replied:
I'm having trouble finding a link with a statistic for North America as a whole--I've got Canadian family and am well aware of what a misnomer 'American' is! I have found a link to some Canadian statistics, so I'm not sure if you'd rather include that instead? https://www.thestar.com/business/tech_news/2017/09/14/half-of-canadians-trust-self-driving-cars-survey-says.html ("That's the reason that barely half of Candians trust triverless cars").
In regards to the car accident link, would this link be better? *** INCLUDES LINK TO EXACT SAME WEBSITE, JUST A DIFFERENT AND EQUALLY USELESS PAGE ***
Finally, I love the idea of an EPIC/FAIL!
Here's something I think could work for fail: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-selfdriving-canada/in-canada-driverless-cars-learn-to-see-in-the-snow-idUSKBN1GX2V9
And this would be my pick for epic:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDidEb7xAJo
Let me know what you think!
After heaving a heavy sigh I shot back:
Everything is great, but I don't feel comfortable linking anything to a 1-800-SUE-4-CASH law firm.
Especially considering that its the same exact link you've used in the past.
At best, it's scarcely related to the content and at worst its thinly-veiled advertising.
And finally, the predictable denouement:
Unfortunately, on my end we would need to include a link to that page. I can see you're uncomfortable with leaving it in your piece, so I'll ask you instead to refrain from posting it.
I really appreciate you taking the time to work with me, and for the opportunity!
Whatta shocka. This was my last message to her:
Oh, no worries. I certainly won't be posting any portion of this in whole or in part. It has, however, inspired an original post of my own, so thanks for that.
I also hope that, from here on in, you let people know up front what your intended motivation is.
I suspect it'll save you and the person that you're soliciting a lot of valuable time.
Curiously, she hasn't written back.
We live in a time where nothing can be taken at face value. With most of us asleep at the switch, the lunatics are currently running the asylum. And although the story I just told is admittedly kinda penny ante, it does showcase a few issues that are critical in this age of fleeting truth, rampant white collar crime and cartoon presidents.
- Don't trust anyone. Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't give people the benefit of the doubt, just don't blindly assume that people are telling you the truth. Do your own independent research and find out what's really going on for yourself.
- In the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett: "The devil's in the details, my lovelies." Sometimes you gotta dig deep for the truth but it's that sort of diligence that will allow you to distinguish "fake news" from reality. Remember: the last thing the powers-that-be want is a population of independent, nosy, details-oriented, well-informed critical thinkers.
- Corporations are inherently scummy. Lies and deceptions are their bread and butter so, for the love of everything holy, try to be better then them. Make an effort to be up-front with people, always broker in facts and don't be afraid to stick to your principles.
I'd be more than willing to publish an article on a topic of your choice, perhaps with the inclusion of an appropriate ad or link to something that you're keen to promote.
Ergo, I might have done the Fibster a solid if she'd just been up front and said "Look, I wanna advertise something on your blog. It's not really related to your content and I don't wanna pay you, but maybe if you publish it we can promote your writing to our clients".
Instead she decided to use subterfuge and chicanery, a tactic that's, sadly, probably worked more times than its failed.
Oh, well, at least I got a (vaguely) funny story out of it.
EPIC: Successful bloggers will often find themselves navigating a veritable minefield of considerably-more-nefarious scam artists. Here's some tips on how to recognize and report one of the scarier ones.
FAIL: Autonomoose? Autonomoose?!? Really?!? Man, if "pandering" were a crime, this chick would be on death row.