I Once Tried to Get Rich Placing Tiny Classified Ads

10/04/2011 By Shawn Burns

Do you remember being awake in the middle of the night at the turn of the millennium? You’d watch infomercials promising riches from unclaimed tax refunds and real estate buys with no investment.

I’d watch Don Lapre tell his “from my one-bedroom apartment” story of wealth built on placing classified ads in the newspaper. (For those of you who are too young to remember, classified ads were like Craigslist, and newspapers were like websites that got your fingers dirty.) I was in my early twenties, newly married, and we were living in a small one-bedroom place in San Diego. Whenever I’d start to really, really despise my swing-shift hotel front desk job, I’d stay up night after night, watching Don promise to make me rich. I’d be up until, sometimes, four in the morning because of my late work shifts and Don’s maniacal enthusiasm.

One day, after I’d expressed complete and total frustration with my stupid job one time too many, I found myself in possession of Don’s kit. Here was a program, it claimed, that anyone could follow, and anyone could make money using. It was, I think, about $50. It came with some audio cassettes of motivational talk and stories, and some binders full of tips or tricks or vendor listings. There was a website builder to help you quickly establish a web presence (though the address was always some ridiculous www.1475687485756.makemerichnow.com style of thing), and there were more videos to watch, to take you “step by step” through the process of getting rich by selling classified ads.

I lasted about a week with Don’s kit, never placed an ad, and shoved the box into a closet, where it sat until we moved a couple of years later and I threw it away. Watching Don’s infomercials after that was sad, because it was clear that I’d been completely stupid, that as with most of these infomercial schemes, the only person getting rich is the one selling them, and it was just embarrassing to know that I’d been duped. The worst part was that it wasn’t obviously a scam: there was a lot of leg work, directions to follow, and actual things contained in the kit so it could seem like I’d gotten value for money, and I’d just been too lazy or ineffective; that I didn’t want to succeed badly enough; that if I’d just stuck it out I would have seen a return worth the $50 I was suddenly out. Those are the best scams, really. The ones that leave everyone thinking it was their own damned fault. I still think it was my own damned fault. That’s a neat trick.

Later, Don’s infomercials disappeared. It turns out that, at that time (around 1999), he wasn’t even the owner of that business anymore, having been forced into bankruptcy. The new owners, purchasing the assets cheaply, continued to air the commercials, but he was out of it. And then late-night was taken over by different get-rich-quick videos, and sleazy camera guys getting college girls drunk to catch them in compromising behaviour.

His classified ads program was not his first venture, and it wasn’t his last. He started selling vitamins. Don’s “Greatest Vitamin in the World” program not only sold vitamins, but promised “independent advertisers” commissions for directing clients to his website, where sales would be finalized. He filmed new infomercials discussing the vitamins and their claimed health benefits, as well as the marketing scheme he’d worked out.

This time around, the scam was more evident. Government officials took an interest first in the health claims aspect, and then later in the affiliate marketing side of the business, which did not seem to be paying out anything like the amounts he’d promised. Don shut down his business in 2007 when warrants were served on his office and home. He was indicted for mail fraud, wire fraud, and money-laundering in June, 2011. He posted a message to people on his website, denying wrong-doing, and he awaited his trial, scheduled to start today, October 4th, 2011. But two days ago, Don was found dead in his cell, apparently having taken his own life.

This is a strange thing: In a way, I count myself among Don’s suckers (though not related to the business he was indicted over), but I can’t feel any animosity toward him, and I certainly don’t feel any sense of just dessert having been served. I’ve never felt like he owed me $50, not any more than I feel like a casino owes me my money back because I played the slot machines for four hours straight. What I do feel is sorrow. It’s hard to read his child’s words to him, at the bottom of his website, and not think that no matter what Don’s particular crimes, he deserved to have more time with his kids.

It’s crazy to be maudlin about a total stranger’s death. And it’s crazier to write so many words about him when I could barely write a thing about Jessie, about her family’s loss, about our loss. I’m sure it’s transference.

We finally told Erin about Jessie, and for the last few days she’s been going through the grieving motions, a bit like it’s a play. Every time she says “Dad, it’s so sad that Jessie died,” it hits me again. Jessie had more time with her family than her doctors ever thought she’d have, but we all deserve more. “Dad, it’s so sad that Jessie died.” It is, that. It is at least, that.

And it’s also sad that Don died. We all deserve more time with our kids.

Wanted: Long hugs from tiny people who look like me.

I will love you forever. OBO.