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A civilization without law?
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Forsyth County News


The fact that there are many unethical business practices today comes as no surprise. The world has always had more than its share of unscrupulous people who prey on others. The dictum, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) has been a watchword for most of recorded time. But as civilizations advance, laws are enacted to limit such activity, hoping to move away from climates where everyone is fair game to more ethical societies, perhaps dominated by the Golden Rule.

An important way to determine the level of civilization a society has achieved is in the way its people behave toward one another. I suggest that this interaction can be measured by the laws which are enacted to regulate such behavior and the way they are enforced. Let’s take a look at how well we are doing today in several important areas.

Some years ago, due to public pressures, a federal do-not-call list was created. Placing your phone number in the data bank is supposed to limit the number of calls you will receive from for-profit organizations. It does not prevent charitable organizations from making contact.

The American Institute of Philanthropy believes charities should spend at least 75 percent of the donations received for the purposes that the donor intended (i.e. no more than 25 percent to be spent on fundraising efforts). The Better Business Bureau’s more relaxed standard requires a minimum of 55 percent to be spent on program services.

Yet many of the calls that come in on behalf of organizations related to police or firefighters (organizations that engender sympathetic responses from most people) pass on less than 15 percent of the funds they receive. It would seem that these are really “for-profit organizations,” circumventing the intent of the law by making modest charitable donations to otherwise worthy causes. Our laws allow them to conduct this masquerade ... at the expense of both the causes they represent and the good intentions of those who donate.

The Internet provides a plethora of practices gone awry, for which there either seem to be no legal remedies or, if there are, where enforcement is non-existent.

Recently, I went to a Web site to view an episode of a TV series that I had missed. The site would only let me view the show if I completed a questionnaire -- fair enough, since the site was “otherwise free.” But the questionnaire required me to submit information to obtain a quote on my car insurance. Subsequently, I received a “code” to unlock the video download, which did not work.

Thereafter I received two telephone calls and 11 emails from legitimate insurance companies, responding to my “request for a quote.” Neither of the two with whom I spoke seemed to be aware that the “lead” they had purchased was not a real lead, that it had been provided to at least a dozen companies, and that it had been obtained by offering “compensation” to me which had never been “paid.” As far as I know, this type of practice will continue unabated until those providing it find better ways to extract money from corporate clients or individuals.

Some time ago, anticipating a barrage of spam, I set up a separate e-mail address to use for purchasing goods and making enquiries about products and services. My concern was well justified. At its peak, that address received more than 500 spam messages a day -- from all over the world and covering a huge range of topics -- even including offers to pump my septic tank (which I don’t have). For whatever reason, the volume has now dropped, but let’s look at the nature of the 137 messages that went into my junk box in the past two days.

First, I do not open most, as some carry viruses, adware and other programs designed by malicious individuals to obtain information, disrupt and destroy -- mostly just for the heck of it. Stopping these “attacks” is tough since it is difficult to track their origins ... but the fact that so much of it exists on the web makes a statement in and of itself. Consequently, my “categorization” (below) is primarily based on the “subject” and some experience in looking at similar emails that I have opened.

About 15 percent came from companies with which I have done business, but have no further interest. No problem. About 25 percent came from companies with which I had no relationship -- not welcome, but also no problem.

But just under 10 percent appeared to come from organizations I knew, asking me to provide information (e.g. a bank account number, password) or to click on a link (which would download a dangerous program to my computer). These bogus e-mails (some of them appearing quite authentic) purportedly came not only from banks and internet providers, but the IRS and the Justice Department. They arrive week after week, and no one seems to think it is important enough to stop them. Tracking the sources is not easy, but misrepresentation of this nature is a crime -- and it is starting to add up to big money as people are lulled into revealing information that is used to their detriment.

Also, another 15 percent offered prescription drugs (many aimed at “male enhancement” but virtually across the
pharmaceutical board) -- clearly an illegal activity.

Here is the real catch. For these people to make money, it is necessary that one respond in a way that reaches them. This trail can be used by legal authorities to find them. But why then don’t they stamp out such activities?

Among the other e-mails offering sex, mail-order degrees, phony jobs and fake designer watches, were others of a more malicious nature. These are the scams -- informing me that I have been selected to help spirit large sums of money out of some country (often Nigeria) or that I have won a lottery (which I never entered) or that I have just inherited a large sum of money (from a relative I never had).

Millions of these are sent out. And of course, they ask you either to send a modest payment to cover costs, or they send you a check for a sum in excess of that agreed upon with the request that you deposit it in your account and sending the overage back -- only to later learn that the original check you received was bogus.

In each of these cases, there has to be a trail back to the originator, otherwise they would not benefit from the scheme. But the scams persist and the gullible (often people who can least afford to lose money) are fleeced.

Two of the e-mails came from friends -- but they didn’t. Someone had broken into their computers, appropriated their e-mail address lists, and used it to send out e-mails, knowing that the recipients might be caught off guard.  

Why, after years of experience with these practices, do they continue? Is it that the laws that exist to deal with these matters were passed for appearance sake, to reduce political pressures while leaving things intact -- to serve special interest groups? Or is it because the authorities are too busy with other major crimes (e.g. those related to preventing or dealing with terrorism) to spend time on these issues? Is it because we have come to accept these practices as “life on the Internet?” Or is it because we just don’t think these matters are important?

Everything that is done to undermine people’s trust in each other undermines the stability of our civilization. The Internet has become an enormous force in people’s lives – changing the way we think and act, even toppling governments. It’s too important an element of our lives and our futures to allow it to become an ethical no-man’s land.

It is vital that we bring morality to something that has become as integral to our lives, lest we return to an era where “anything goes.” Our civilization depends on having meaningful laws and adequate enforcement. We need to put pressure on lawmakers to eliminate loopholes and to take aggressive action to establish an ethical environment, in every way possible. Accepting the status-quo just won’t do.

Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at