Promises of a free Caribbean cruise for participation in a brief surveys. (Bud Gundersen )
A free Caribbean cruise -- and all you have to do is participate in a brief phone and online survey.
I received just such a call on my office line a few days ago and eagerly dove in. Who wouldn't want a two-day, two-night, all-inclusive cruise to the Bahamas?
First I had to respond to a series of automated questions. What's my gender? What's my age group? Do I speak Spanish?
Is anyone in my household a diabetic? Am I a homeowner? Do I use a credit card when I make purchases?
What kind of TV service do I have?
Do I have health insurance?
What's my educational background?
Do I have a septic tank or a sewer system?
OK, these were some odd questions, covering some pretty eclectic ground. But it didn't take long, so what the heck.
Next a live operator came on the line. He identified himself as Operator 130 and said he worked for Royal Caribbean, one of the leading cruise-ship operators.
He asked for my ZIP Code and told me I could claim my free cruise by visiting the website of something called the Survey Research Center at surveyclaim.com.
Then I heard a recorded ad for Dish Network, the satellite TV provider.
At the website, I entered my phone number and ZIP Code, and then was asked if I was interested in learning more about the following companies: Dish Network, ADT Home Security, Oxford Diabetic Supplies, Payday Advances.
I clicked no.
Now I came to a page naming me as "Andy Lasariz" and congratulating me for being awarded a free cruise aboard Imperial Majesty Cruise Lines' Regal Empress cruise ship. A "cruise coordinator" would call me soon to arrange the booking.
In the meantime, I decided to do a little nosing around.
I called Royal Caribbean. A spokeswoman said the company had no affiliation with Imperial Majesty Cruise Lines, the Regal Empress or the Survey Research Center.
I called Dish Network. A spokeswoman said the company didn't know anything about a survey involving a free Caribbean cruise.
A spokeswoman for ADT Home Security said the same, as did a spokeswoman for Oxford Diabetic Supply (the closest I could find to "Oxford Diabetic Supplies"). I couldn't find a company called Payday Advances.
A little more digging revealed that Imperial Majesty Cruise Lines went bust last year.
The Regal Empress, built in 1953, was subsequently sold for scrap, according to Maritime Matters, a cruise-industry news site. Its steel carcass is now rusting on some beach in India.
I'm still waiting for that call from the cruise coordinator. Other people who have taken the survey say online that I'll be asked at some point for a credit card number to confirm the booking.
Or I'll be told that a free cabin isn't available on the dates I want to travel, but I can upgrade to an available room for a modest fee.
Or I'll have to send in a refundable check for a few hundred dollars to secure my booking.
You get the idea.
I've seen a lot of scams. This one's use of legitimate corporate interests for cover, as well as a defunct cruise line and cruise ship for bait, deserves some kind of prize for ingenuity.
And that automated survey: Do you speak Spanish? Are you a diabetic? Do you have a septic tank? There's some kind of evil genius at work there.
Variations on the bogus-vacation scam have been around for years, but this latest version takes it to a whole new level of sneakiness.
Ownership of the surveyclaim.com website is hidden by an intermediary service, Domains by Proxy Inc. of Arizona. The people behind this racket could be anywhere. The site says Survey Research Center -- not to be confused with identically named facilities at UC Berkeley, Princeton and elsewhere -- is "an industry leader" in providing automated surveys for clients.
But its online domain registration says the site's focus is on, among other things, "free rewards, free Bahamas cruise, free universal tickets, free vacations, Costa Rica."
There's no phone number on the website. Every time I tried to contact Survey Research Center by e-mail, I was told that I'd encountered a server error and that my message couldn't get through.
I don't know how these guys got my work number, or why they think I'm Andy Lasariz -- no such person turns up on a Google search.
But I have to admire the chutzpah of anyone who can cook up a scheme this colorful and complex.
And I hope that whoever's behind it gets a stateroom on the Regal Empress.
With all the amenities currently available.
He's moved again?
Yup. From now on, you will find my column in the Tuesday and Friday newspapers.
You can also catch me daily on KTLA Channel 5 during the 1 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, and chiming in each morning on the Money & Co. blog at latimes.com.
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