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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

McWhortle No Competition for MMM

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WASHINGTON -- McWhortle Enterprises, the big defense company, went public Wednesday. As the web site (www.mcwhortle.com) announced, Thomas James McWhortle III had finally decided to expand his lucrative security business for the Fortune 500 set so as to cash in on his Bio-Hazard Detector -- which detects "all known bio-hazards" by testing for "distinctive surface leptins." The device has "proven effective to just .02 microns per cubic meter of air" -- odd, since a micron is a measurement of length -- but keep reading because "the Bio-Hazard Detector has gained instant acceptance in four test markets ... Within hours the product sold out of each store, with no advertising and only word-of-mouth."

Yes, it's another anthrax scam. And no, neither McWhortle nor the "guaranteed" 217 percent returns nor those wacky surface leptins exist. But this scam is different -- because it was purely an educational service.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates U.S. capital markets, fabricated the site to battle post-Sept. 11 con artists. It then floated a fake news release about McWhortle on the Internet. Media were given a heads-up -- a good thing too, since a few years ago a spoof press release had national television here reporting a Texas entrepreneur had purchased Lenin's mummified body as a souvenir. (Somehow those reporting this overlooked the press release photo of Lenin under a glass-topped coffee table at a cocktail party.)

For those not forewarned, the McWhortle site looks professional enough, even if ridiculous on a casual reading. (For example, it's testimonials are all anonymous.) It lures visitors into committing to sending credit card data -- and then unmasks itself, crying, "Watch Out! If you respond to an investment idea like this ... you could get scammed!"

When the SEC went public about McWhortle, it said the site had already received 150,000 hits from curious investors. It also claimed most of the snookered sent e-mails of gratitude for the lesson -- and maybe they even did.

Ironically, the SEC -- the paladin of business transparency -- has failed to make clear whether it was referring to "page views" or "unique hosts." So we have no idea if those "hits" represent 150,000 people or a few thousand people clicking madly all over the site. Of course, the bigger number sounds like they're helping more people, so the SEC has left the vague impression, dutifully parroted by the ever-vigilant press, that one hit equals one sucker saved.

Even if just a few thousand Americans made their way to this obscure site and tried to give it money, I can't help remembering pyramid schemes like MMM. Those scams beggared millions, and the Western world clucked sympathetically: Poor Russians. Silly innocents. Market naifs.

MMM and its like, however, had major ad campaigns on state television, government office space, and uniformed militsia at the door. I suspect a McWhortle offered that kind of clout and buzz would have taken in as many millions of Americans.

I like the McWhortle idea, with one caveat:

It congratulates visitors who try to use the site's menu to access "financial information." "Congratulations!" the site responds as it unmasks itself. "You've just taken an important first step before putting your money into an investment -- checking out a company's financial statements."

So someone who's clicking around this absurd site thinking, "Wow! .02 microns per cubic meter! That's hot!" and then says, "Well, first I better check those financials" -- knows what he's doing?

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].