"You are about to make at least $50,000 in less than 90 days," the headline on the six-page, typewritten letter announced boldly in all capitals. "In the comfort of your own home."
It went on at great length to lay out what U.S. Postal officials called a pyramid scheme that couldn't possibly deliver the pay-off it promised.
To make that money, one person would have to find nearly 8,000 others willing to keep the chain going, explained Mike Vision, spokesman for postal inspectors in Baltimore. "Your chances of finding that many suckers is ridiculous," he said.
Throughout the nation, mail fraud victims are bilked of millions of dollars annually, Mr. Vision said. The scams represented by chain letters account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.
Postal officials say it is impossible to tell how many people are taken in by chain letters because they often go unreported. But last year 27,000 people throughout the country agreed voluntarily to discontinue similar chain letters, said Dan Mihalko, a postal service spokesman in Washington.
The letter that has been circulating in the Baltimore area for several months is similar to one Mr. Vision said federal agents thought they had stopped in Philadelphia about nine years ago. It cropped up again, he explained, because agents apparently had not reached everyone involved.
Chain letters, often disguised as work-at-home schemes, constitute illegal lotteries, Mr. Vision said.
The Baltimore letter asks its readers to send $5 in cash to each of four companies for "reports" on a technique called "multi-level marketing." The readers then are to copy the letter, insert their names at the top of the list of companies, bump the others down, and mail the letter to as many potential customers as possible. They also are to return copies of the reports to anyone who sends them $5.
The letter stresses that reports must be mailed to avoid violating postal regulations.
But the reports merely "lend a guise of legality" to an illegal "lottery with a business twist," Mr. Vision said. "They're not selling reports, they're selling a chance to win $50,000."
It is that element of chance that is one of three hallmarks of an illegal lottery, explained Larry Maxwell, manager of fraud and prohibited mailings in the postal service's Washington office.
The others are prizes -- the $50,000 -- and consideration -- the investment in mailing and copying costs.
John Lederer, of the 7000 block Mayfair Circle in Ellicott City, didn't say how much he had invested in the chain letter, but did say he has received "maybe four responses" to the 80 letters he mailed.
And the lone report he's gotten "was just one sheet of paper that describes the program in two paragraphs," he said in a telephone interview. "It doesn't tell you much."
Mr. Lederer said he got involved in the chain letter almost on a lark. "I said, let's take a shot at it," he recounted.
He rented a post office box in Crownsville under the name T.A.S.H.A. Publishing and began mailing the letters.
The chains can work only if everyone involved keeps them intact, Maxwell said. But if they did, the market would quickly become saturated because the number of letters increases exponentially.
A typical scheme requires one person to mail the letter and a certain amount of money to six others, who in turn mail letters to six more and so on. But by the time that chain reaches the 11th level, it would involve 362.8 million people, more than the population of the United States, according to a Postal Service pamphlet.
And at the 13th level, it would involve 13 billion, three times the world's population.
It is all but impossible to make the money described in glowing testimonials in the Baltimore letter, Mr. Maxwell said.
And those testimonials could be fraudulent. They include comments from 11 alleged multi-level marketers from towns like Warren, Pa., Gila Bend, Ariz., Waco, Texas, and Spokane, Wash., all of whom say they made big money in this scheme.
But directory assistance in only one of the 11 towns had a listing for the person praising the plan. And that person, Paul Johnson, of Raleigh, N.C., says he never heard of multi-level marketing until he began getting telephone calls from the curious.
Postal inspectors rarely prosecute individuals involved in such schemes, Mr. Maxwell said.
Generally, they send the person a notice explaining the law and asking him to voluntarily sign an agreement to stop, he said. Failing that, authorities seek a legally binding agreement. As a last resort, they go to court for permission to stop delivering the person's mail.
Jeff Reece, of Old Mill, said he and a partner he won't identify recently signed a voluntary agreement to stop distributing the letter.
He had used a mail box at Mail Boxes, Etc., U.S.A. in the Northway shopping center on Route 3 in Millersville under the name Colin Brady Enterprises.
The operation "might have paid for itself," Mr. Reece added. But now, "we're just trying to wash our hands of the whole thing."