The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mail mania robs netizens of lakhs

The irritant of new-age communication turned criminal on Thursday, robbing thousands of “investors” of lakhs. An agency, specialising in sending out ‘bulk mail’ logged out and left its “franchisees” in the lurch — and poorer by what conservative estimates put at “over Rs 1 crore”.

Police believe “around 5,000 people” had signed the one-year contract with the company. The office, at Lansdowne Terrace, in south Calcutta, has been sealed.

For each mail sent, the franchisee would earn 60 paise. To gain access to more than 250 e-mail addresses, the franchisee would pump in proportionately more money — Rs 3,000 would buy 250 e-mail addresses, while Rs 6,000 would double the number. Investments above Rs 1 lakh paid higher dividends, and those who could bring in other franchisees would earn Rs 250 and a cut from the added business.

The partners of the firm have been missing since Saturday, but this did not raise any suspicion because a notice had been put up stating the office would reopen after bhai phonta. But on November 7, there was no reason for the shutters to be down. When there was no sign of the four men identified as the public face of Source One so far — Ben George, Thamudaran, Alaghan and Rajeev Shankar — some of the franchisees alerted Lake thana.

And they all started converging at the centre that had sold them a get-rich-quick scheme. Rana Mukherjee had poured in Rs 10 lakh, but he was hardly among the bigger investors. “One of my friends had given over Rs 50 lakh. I have employed two people to send out the e-mails that we were assigned,” says Mukherjee.

Rakesh, in Class X of a Howrah school, has Rs 24,000 on the line. “I thought it would be a good part-time job. We were to be given enough work so as to make up the money in two months,” he explains. The deposit, he had been promised, would be refunded a month after termination of the contract. The money was extracted as a “commitment” to ensure the job was taken seriously.

Software skills were not required — just long hours spent at the computer. Once the franchisees paid up, they would be assigned logins and e-mail addresses to a website from where they were instructed to send all the mails. The products advertised were “nothing suspicious” — DVD players, webcams and other electronic products.

For Piyali Mukherjee, a Montessori teacher, it was a close shave. She showed up on Thursday, money in hand and contract signed, only to find furore outside the south Calcutta office. “I was going to sign up today… Thank God I did not come a day earlier,” sighed the mother of one.

Source One had advertised last month that it was looking for “computer-literate youth’’ for jobs, but word-of-mouth publicity also lured in many. “Over the past few months, the number of franchisees has multiplied. But they had just expanded to a new premises,” said D. Sau, who runs his own DTP business.

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