If you're a movie-goer, how can you resist it? The answer is you can't. It's one of those once in a lifetime opportunities -- an invitation to actually attend the annual Academy Awards presentation in California, instead of watching it on TV, as some 40 million Americans do, and mingle with the who's who of Hollywood.
I once had a shot at going to the 2009 Oscars in grand style. Or at least so I thought, via an e-mail invitation I received in late 2008. Alas, it never came to pass. It turned out to be another one of those online scams, an ingenious bit of Internet chicanery.
Since the 2010 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony, set for February 27, is almost upon us, I thought I'd dash off a cautionary piece just in case the hoax is repeated this year.
Here's my experience. Prior to last year's Oscars, I received what appeared to be a personal invitation from none other than Mission Impossible star Tom Cruise, who invited me to join him at the 2009 ceremony. Since I had never met the actor personally, why me, I wondered?
I didn't have to wonder very long. My online invitation explained it all. "Your name, one of a lucky 45, was chosen from a first ever lottery drawing to attend the 2009 Academy Awards presentation with Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise." The Oscar ceremonies, it was said, would be followed by "a deluxe Academy Awards dinner hosted by Mr. Cruise and prepared by one of California's most eminent chefs." Also attending the dinner, the invitation noted, would be a host of celebrities, including some previous Oscar winners.
The price: only $750 a ticket. Included were one day top-grade accommodations that would be made for me at a centrally located hotel and a limousine to and from the Academy Award ceremonies. A spouse or a guest, only one would be permitted, for an additional $750.
My e-mail invitation was extended by Gerard E. Becker, who identified himself as Cruise's special consultant for the Academy Awards event and president of GEB Communications. He also requested that cash or checks for either $750 or $1,500 be sent as soon as possible to ensure the invitation. "Act now and experience one of the greatest nights of your life," he wrote.
I rang up Becker at the phone number on the invitation, which turned out to be a cell number, not an office number. When I told him I might be interested in attending the Oscars and the dinner and wanted more information,, he bellowed, "Don't wait. The tickets are going fast. The smartest thing you can do is write out a check as soon as you get off the phone and send it out today first class mail."
But what happens if for some reason I can't make it and at the last moment I'm sitting with two airline tickets that cost me maybe $1,500 or $2,000?, I asked. "Don't worry about it," he replied. "At worst, you can probably sell the pair to some friends for $10,000, maybe more."
In a way, it all sounded too good to be true. For starters, the price seemed usually low, given the exclusivity of the event. Further, since Cruise asks about $25 million a picture and has an estimated net worth of around $600,000 million, it seemed illogical he would seek to pocket a few extra bucks by sponsoring a dinner. Likewise, I had always thought the Oscar ceremonies were not open to the public, but only to members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
I was right. The supposed invitation from Cruise was fraudulent, just another in the latest and more creative Internet scams aimed at ripping off the online population. A spokeswoman at the Academy of Arts and Sciences suggested the idea of obtaining 90 tickets for public consumption of the Oscar ceremonies at Hollywood's Kodak theater was truly the mission impossible since the public is not invited. I also checked the Los Angeles phone directory and there was no record of a company called GEB Communications.
The academy spokeswoman may not be right in her mission impossible characterization when it comes to the Oscars. As a couple proved last November--they managed to break through secuity and attend a White House State dinner with President Obama--mission impossible may not be so impossible.
I tried reaching Cruise, but no luck. A studio spokeswoman for the actor told me she had heard of the Cruise Oscar invitation, which she described as ridiculous.
I figure Bekker, likely not his real name, probably deserves an Oscar of his own for concocting one of the more imaginative Internet scams. Several follow-up messages I left for him were not returned.
Incidentally, Internet hoaxes, which are a dime a dozen, are a big money-maker for the scammers, bilking the online population out of more than $300 million a year, according to a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He noted that these money-making schemes are becoming bolder, more diversified and increasingly are using well known names, hoping that the unsuspecting mark will never check.
"You can't imagine how naïve some supposedly sophisticated people can be," the spokesman said, pointing in particular to physicians and business executives.
Meanwhile, American Internet users should continue to be wary since growing numbers of online frauds are being concocted overseas. They involve, among others, multimillion-dollar inheritance schemes that frequently use the names of large, well known financial institutions to give them credibility. Other red lights are Asian real estate deals, young foreign women looking for a companion, sharing inheritances of ill and aging people, guaranteed money-making currency transactions, buying gold below market value and an announcement that you were one of the winners in a huge foreign lottery.
Also, watch out, I'm told, for a scam artist who claims to be a cousin of former French president Jacques Chirac.
What do you think? E-mail me at Dandordan@aol.com