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Most of us spend some time surfing the web. But is someone willing to pay you to do it? It sounds too good to be true. Critics are calling it a pyramid scheme, but supporters say it's a legitimate business.
It's called auto-surfing. Companies promise to pay you to use your computer to automatically flip through advertisers' websites. Problem is, you have to pay some up front, and right now it looks like thousands of our neighbors could be out thousands of dollars.
Julian Saenz of Hinesville says he's been paid a lot of money, just to look at internet ads. "My personal gain, I probably made about $8,000 in profit," he said.
Or more accurately, to have his computer display ads, whether he's looking or not. He's invested money in what are called auto-surfing programs, like 12daily Pro, which promises to pay large sums back on each investment to users who visit 12 participating websites a day.
"I do believe this is going to be the future of advertising," said Saenz. "Different businesses and different products. It's going to eliminate the middle man. Why pay a million dollars for a thirty-second commercial when you could pay a couple hundred and get probably just as much if not better results out of it?"
Critics, however, say these are pyramid schemes and can only pay you back while money keeps coming in from new investors.
"Look at 12daily Pro and the way that they are set up, the fact that they've only been in business for a short period of time, since last September," said Ross Howard with the Savannah office of the Better Business Bureau. "Now they have turned a lot of people into that program, but at some point that program will definitely bottom out, and this may be the point where it starts to happen. You're going to find this to be a house of cards that falls down."
The BBB says that programs like this promise such large returns that they eventually get to the point where they couldn't possibly pay out everything they owe all their members on paper. Whether that's the case with 12daily Pro may not matter. The investors' money is actually being held, frozen by another company.
That company is StormPay, which handles the money online between 12daily Pro and its customers. Only now, no one can get their money.
Saenz showed us his zero balance on the StormPay site, telling us, "Should be right now, it should be anywhere from a thousand to two thousand dollars now."
StormPay says it's placed the money in a holding account, pending an investigation into 12daily Pro by the FBI. By policy, the FBI would neither confirm nor deny any ongoing investigation.
Supporters of 12daily Pro say it looks to them like StormPay's planning to take the money and run. "The only thing they have released are false claims that this is a pyramid and this is a scam, with no actual documentation," said Saenz.
"It's very easy for one to point the finger at the other, and very common practice whenever I get complaint responses back from companies that are suspect in nature," said Howard. "They find a way to point the finger at someone else to avoid blame, that is a common tactic that con artists use."
But for now, it's consumers left holding the bag. "Everybody wants to know what's going on," said Saenz.
Right now, whether either of these companies is doing anything illegal is still up in the air. StormPay was very forthcoming with its position on the phone with us, but our calls to 12daily Pro went unanswered.
Complaints about both have been piling up with the Better Business Bureau and consumer affairs agencies in at least three states.
For 12daily Pro, based in North Carolina, that state's Department of Justice (www.ncdoj.com) is looking into the company after numerous consumer complaints. The Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs (consumer.georgia.gov) today released a warning about the company as "a potentially fraudulent internet scam," after numerous reports.
That warning also mentions StormPay, which is based in Tennessee, where the regional Better Business Bureau (www.gobbb.org) says it's racked up close to 19,000 inquiries and 180 complaints in a seven-day period.
StormPay was also involved in another case in 2003, where it and a related company were ordered to cease operations of what the State Securities Division (www.state.tn.us/commerce/securities) called a pyramid scheme.