Reno, Greed, …

Reno, Greed, and Glow in the Dark Key Chains

One January morning in 1981 I answered my phone to hear a cheerful voice identify itself as Valerie Hale, from J. & M. Special Editions of San Clemente, California. Richard Nixon’s Western White House came immediately to mind, as prior to that moment I’d never heard of San Clemente to any other context. I felt an immediate impulse to hang up the phone, but before I could act, she was talking again.

“You have been chosen as one of only 20 businesses in the Bay Area to receive our special promotional travel package. This includes two weekends for two, or one weekend for four, at one of the following Reno hotels: the MGM Grand, Harah’s, or the Sahara.”

A hook was being dangled in front of me, and so far it looked interesting. “Go on,” I said. “What do I have to do to get this travel package?”

“All we require is that you buy a small sample of our product. In addition to the accommodations at one of the previously mentioned luxury hotels, meals in the hotel dining room are complimentary, and you receive two free drinks in the hotel bar.”

I felt myself strangely drawn to this hook. “Sounds pretty good,” I thought, “but what do I have to buy, and how much will it cost?”

“We make promotional keychains. They are really quite lovely. They have your business name, address, phone number, and any slogan of twenty words or less. And best of all,” she paused here to let the drama build, “THEY GLOW IN THE DARK.” Her tone was one of worship.

There was a pause. It was my turn to speak. l nearly hung up the phone, but the two free weekends in Reno pulled at me. I was in the process of moving into a new studio, and some sort of promo piece would be valuable, but I didn’t see how glow-in-the-dark keychains could compete with full color, spot-varnished, Kromecoat posters. Still, two free weekends in Reno… I found myself thinking of possible ways to spread these keychains throughout the photobuying community.

“How much?”

“We’re asking that participants (that was the word she used) buy a full order of 200 key chains for $175, or a half order of 100 for $100. The travel award is the same with either order. As a bonus each member of your party will receive $400 in gambling money at the hotel casino.”

“In cash?” I nearly screamed. My mind, which suffers from near paralysis when trying to think of new ways to promote my photography business, was in a feeding frenzy of greed concocting schemes that would allow me to take advantage of this windfall. “If I brought three friends on the condition that they split their $400 with me, they’d still have $200 to play with, and I’d have $1000. I could gamble half, and still come home with $500.” This was one of several plans, I am ashamed to say, that flashed through my mind in a moment’s time. I had swallowed the hook.

“No, no,” she gently laughed, “not cash, but credit in the hotel casino.” The frenzy ended, my sanity returned. But my disappointment was only momentary. So what if I couldn’t extort three of my friends out of half their money. I’d still have $400 to gamble. I’d always liked black-jack. With a $400 stake perhaps I could do very well. Maybe break the house. (My return to sanity had not lasted long).

The hook was set. “Put me down for a half order,” I said. (I was no fool. I wasn’t going to spend any more than I needed to!).

No fool indeed! In the next few days I felt utter amazement at myself that I actually could have believed such an offer. How many times had I laughed at stories of people falling for swindles such as this? I had actually swallowed the whole story. My common sense told me now how absurd the offr was. But, aside from feeling a bit embarrassed, no real harm had been done. The keychains were being sent COD. When they arrived a few weeks later, I refused to pay for them, and the post office sent them back to San Clemente. “That,” I figured, “was the end of that”.

A few days later I was once again listening to the perky voice of Valerie Hale. “We understand that you didn’t pick up your keychains, and were wondering if there had perhaps been some misunderstanding.” I could truthfully have said, “Well, after I hung up t figured that I had fallen for one of the oldest con games going, that I would end up writing a check for $100 and pick up a box full of wood chips or crumpled newspapers. I don’t want to end up as a segment on “60 Minutes”, so I decided to let the box go unclaimed.” Instead I made up some lie about having been out of town.

“I’ve seen the keychains,” she went on, “and believe me, they look beautiful. And the vouchers for your Reno trip are right there in the box with them.”

I began thinking that perhaps these folks were legitimate. They went to the trouble to call me back. Maybe they were on the level. After all, such promotional packages do exist. Someone must receive them. Why not me? Why couldn’t I be the lucky one for once. “Okay,” I said. “Send them back. This time I’ll accept delivery”.

I refused to feel amazement at the fact that I’d fallen for this scam not just once, but twice. I kept telling myself that these things must happen for real once in a great while. Why couldn’t this be one of those times? Still, I made a call to the San Clemente Better Business Bureau. Thought I’d ask a few questions about J. & M. Special Editions.

I asked, “Are these guys legit? Have you had complaints about them?”

“I’m afraid we cannot tell you the nature of the inquiries or complaints we’ve had regarding any company. We can only tell you the number of calls we’ve received regarding any specific firm.”

After a brief search through the files, “We have had three calls in regard to that company”.

“Can you tell me what those calls were about?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry we can’t.”

“Can you tell me if they were in fact complaints, and not just inquiries?”

“No, I’m sorry we can’t”.

“Well what’s the point of having a Better Business Bureau if consumers can’t check to see if they’re dealing with an honest business?” End of conversation. I’d done what I could. There was nothing to do but wait for the package.

When the notice arrived, I went to the Post Office window, tentatively clutching my checkbook. The clerk brought out the package and placed it on the counter. “$100” he said.

“Can I shake it before I pay you?” I asked. I wasn’t sure how 100 glow-in-the-dark keychains sounded when shaken, let alone travel vouchers, but I thought I might know what they didn’t sound like.

“No, I’m sorry. Can’t give it to you until I have the money”. I wrote the check. I took the package and shook it. No sound. It weighed too much to be crumpled newspapers, but I was sure it was something just as useless. I was also sure that everyone in the Post Office line was waiting to enjoy my embarrassment, so I took it home to reveal the proof of my folly in solitude.

A few quick cuts and the box was open, revealing crumpled up newspaper. “Ah Ha! I was right”, I thought. But upon lifting the wadded paper I found, much to my astonishment, 100 keychains with my business name, address, and phone number. A quick trip to the darkroom confirmed that they did indeed glow in the dark. Sticking out of the mass of keychains was an envelope. I clutched at it, rejoicing in my wisdom in perceiving this as a legitimate promotion. The MGM Grand, fine dining, high rolling all night in the casino.

I opened the envelope. I read, “A reservation has been made in your name at the Mini-Price Motor Inn in Sparks. You must confirm the dates with them by sending a check for $52 for two nights. This is refundable after you have claimed your travel award”. Two coupon books fell out of the envelope. They offered such delights as two meals for the price of one at the Burger King, a hero sandwich at the Reno Deli, one complimentary cocktail at the Moonlight Lounge, wherever that was, and a few gambling chits at scattered and obscure casinos. So much for the luxury hotel, complimentary meals and $400 credit in the casino. A few coupons worth a face value of possibly $80; and a motel in Sparks, Nevada. If Reno is the “Biggest Little City in the World”, then Sparks has to be the “Biggest Little Suburb”. My outrage and indignation were total. However, I had to admit that I did like the keychains.

The next day was my studio warming party, and I used them as give away door prizes. They were a great success. Only thirty remained when all the guests had left.

The following Monday I called J. & M. Special Editions to let them know how dissatisfied I was with their “travel award”. I spoke with someone named Dewey. “I don’t know why Miss Hale would misrepresent the nature of the travel award,” he said, “but if you’re not satisfied, return the keychains and the vouchers (he kept calling the coupon book “vouchers”) for a full refund.

“I’ve already given most of them away,” I replied.

“That’s all right,” he assured me. “Send the remainder and we’ll refund all of your money”.

I grabbed eight or ten of the keychains for myself, and sent the rest of them back, with an appropriately indignant letter. After about two weeks with no refund I phoned. I got a Ma Bell recording: ‘The number you have reached has been disconnected. There is no new number”

My next call as to the Orange County Office for Consumer Affiars, where I was connected with chief instpector August C. Molina. “Call me Augie,” he said, “like in ‘Augie Doggie'”. He told me that they had received numerous complaints about this company, (I should have called them first rather than the BBB), and that his office, the DA’s office, and the Postal Inspector were reviewing the case. They would keep me informed.

A month later, a letter came from Augie explaining that J. & M. Special Editions had ceased operations, and that the invetigating agencies were not proceeding any further. In other words, “they’ve skipped town, and we can’t be bothered.” he expressed sympathy for my situation, and suggested my own attorney should advise me further. “Thanks, Augie Doggie!”

There I was. No refund, no MGM Grand or Mini-Price Motor Inn, no justice, no coupon book for the Burger King, and worse yet, no more keychains. They never refunded my money and they skipped town with the returned goods.

After the slow recovery from the humiliation and self recriminations, I began realizing that much good had come of the incident. I had become acquainted with a side of myself that was good to have met, if only to keep a watchful eye upon. And who knows how many clients and friends have not had to fumble for their keys in the dark because of these glowing rings?

The few keychains that I held back found their way into my darkroom, where they have been most useful hanging at the ends of the light and safelight chains, saving me endless blind groping. (They did need some modification though, as they glowed too brightly, enough to fog film. A flat black paint over 9/10ths of each keychain eliminated that problem, along with my name and address). I wish I had more of them.

So the tale ends. The years have gone by and my business has changed and grown. Many jobs have been completed and some have fallen through. There is one lesson that the keychain caper has taught me, and it is this: When a proposal is made, an offer extended, or a job considered, no matter how attractive it seems, if the first thing that comes into your mind is Richard M. Nixon, just say “no”.

Mark Citret
June 1987