Thursday, September 23, 2004

 

In Which I Catch A Thief...

One of the best things about finally landing a job at a Really Big Magazine is NOT the thrill of seeing my name somewhere on the masthead, or even as a byline (although those were goals I would have given my third nipple to achieve, back when I was a lowly freelancer, tacking rejection letters to the walls of my tiny apartment because I believed I could feed on the negative energy). It's not the obvious pride of my parents, although that is pretty cool, too, considering how much they suffered and sacrificed to make up the shortfall to put me through college after my scholarships ran out.

Right, so what the hell is it?

It's all the free stuff, of course.

My first week on the job, I was back at my house with a carton of wine, cookies, a couple of steaks, a few CDs and an action figure. Being a Really Big Magazine means you're a target for every single PR rep on the planet. I mean, let's face it: getting a free mention in a publication with several million readers is SO much better than shelling out $850,000 or more for an ad in the same magazine. So of course you would send lots of product to various editors, hoping that if you throw enough crap at the wall, something will stick.

In this analogy, I'm the shit-covered wall.

But I don't really mind. Free stuff is the best stuff. I've already learned that I'm on the review list of most major movie studios and toymakers, as well as other manufacturers of everything from binoculars to those plug-in massage chair things that you put in your car. Every week, the mail comes in the form of several interestingly-bulked envelopes or large boxes and it's as though someone has signed me up for the Grab Bag of the Week club.

Today's mail, for example, brought:

Three galleys of some very highly anticipated books, two fiction, one nonfiction.

A set of Donkey Kong bongos that plug into a GameCube so you can apparently bongo your way through the game. Was this designed by beat poets or something?

A gallon container of ice melter guaranteed to be safe for pets and children (I can see it helping dogs, who walk around in their bare feet. But what kids are going to cavort on an icy driveway with no shows or socks on?).

Two DVDs, one a recent major motion picture, the other, a very independently produced video involving the charmless antics of a person in a yellow dog suit, who disptaches muffled lectures to overacting children.

Some weeks it's great (as when I got my own copy of the Star Wars DVD set) and some weeks it's not (as when I got the carton of maxipads for Plus size women and the homeopathic menopause kit). But I must admit: it's almost always interesting.

And I can see where it would be hard to leave this job. I mean, really, getting free swag is a perk, and to take another job where no one sends you this. Well, it would be tough.

All I'm saying is, I can see the lure. I can see why people would want to sign up for this kind of treatment. So I do have some sympathy for the guy who tried to scam a movie studio out of some DVDs -- and used our name to do it.

I learned about this last week, when I was introducing myself to a nice guy who handles PR for a major studio. We were talking about DVDs we might like to review and possible cover in one of our holiday issues.

"Wow," he says. "You guys are doing a lot, what with that Home Theater special and your holiday issues," he says.

Now, I've only been here a short time, and I know that, like a lot of big magazines, we occasionally publish special one-shot magazines under the magazine's brand name, covering in detail some aspect of live that we cover more generally every month. Reader's Digest does it with books and special issues. Rodale does it with special cookbooks and diabetes books. And we do it with all manner of lifestyle topics.

But Home Theater? We've never really addressed it in the regular magazine, let alone as a special.

"Uh," I says, "what's this about a home theater special?"

So my contact proceeds to tell me he was approached by a fellow in New York, claiming to be a freelancer working on a DVD roundup for our Home Theater special. He wants to review family-friendly movies and TV shows.

"So, what did this guy request?" I asked.

"Season 2 of Roswell," comes the reply.

Now, come on. Roswell may be a fine show, but it's not up there with Waltons or Happy Days as family-friendly entertainment. It's more like the sort of thing a geek might ask for for his own enjoyment.

I asked the PR guy not to send anything, but instead to email this guy and ask who his editorial contact is at the magazine. If he's bluffing, I figure, he'll clam up. But if he's legit, he'll give his contact at the magazine (and really, for you aspiring freelancers taking notes at home, it's the sort of thing you should do with your first phone call. If you're legit, there's no reason not to give up the name of your editor. It establishes your bona fides and saves you loads of hassle).

So I hang up with this contact and go back to my work. A few hours later, I get an email that the freelancer replied by giving the name of an editor at the magazine: Michelle Doe. Did I know her?

No. But I asked my assistant, who's been at the magazine since I was in 8th grade (as I love to remind her in my more devilish moments).

"Oh sure, I remember Michelle," says my assistant. She was indeed an editor at the magazine...in 1992.

And now I slip into Boy Detective mode. I'm envisioning a home body. He's an adult, but still living with his mom. His mom who subscribes to our magazine and, like a lot of our loyal readers, keeps years and years of back issues lying around the house. He's got his internet and his DVD player but not a lot of money to spend on new DVDs, certainly not the $100 or so clams it takes to buy a whole season of a show. What he does have, though, is plenty of free time. And he concocts this scheme to get free DVDs. Just call up a few PR reps and tell em you work for a Really Big Magazine. Heck, they probably won't question you, and if they do, you can always demur by saying, well, it's not a formal assignment. You're doing the story on spec, etc.

But then someone DOES question you. Do you clam up and let your silence reveal you as a fraud? Or do you take it to the very edge of brinksmanship and pull a name out of the masthead of the nearest magazine your mom left lying around (in this case, a 1992 issue of the magazine)?

Well, this guy obviously had balls enough to give em a name. But I wasn't going to let this go. I finally found out where this editor was now: she's long since married and living somewhere in the Midwest. But she still occasionally freelances for us on special projects, so maybe this guy is legit after all.

I get Michelle's number and call her. She has NO idea who this alleged freelancer is. And she certainly isn't working on any home theater special.

Busted!

I informed the PR guy, then called our legal department, who were decidedly unruffled by the news. Apparently this happens quite a bit. Often enough that they actually have a pre-formatted Cease and Desist letter that they issue when they catch someone posing as a freelancer for us. Apparently, when you're a Really Big Magazine, you're not just a target for every PR rep on the planet, you're also a target for every enterprising scammer who wants to get in on the free-stuff gravy train.

Well, not this time.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall when this guy gets the registered letter from our lawyers. I bet his mom will ground him and take away his computer privileges for a month.

Yours,

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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