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Can you spare a dime online? Spring Hill family goes on Web with plea.

SPRING HILL — For Iris and Michael Erb, it all began to crumble when the family carwash business collapsed.

Debts exhausted credit cards, jobs became scarce and bills went unpaid. The couple filed for bankruptcy. Now, foreclosure looms.

In this regard, the Erbs' story isn't unfamiliar, especially in Hernando, one of the counties hardest hit by the economic downturn.

But what Iris Erb did next is unusual: She began soliciting for donations at the Web address,

Below her picture, a short biography appears on the site along with this message: "Bad investments and a sinking economy has put me and my family on the verge of homelessness. Help ... ."

Iris Erb's plea grew from outrage, but included indigence and humility.

"I watched the news about this woman (Nadya Suleman) having eight children after already having six," she started. "And I thought she has got a lot of nerve to ask for help when she got herself in this situation. So I said to my husband, 'You know, she did it. Why can't I ask for money?'

"I'm to a point where I had to set my pride and my embarrassment aside."

The Erbs are part of a resurgence in what is known as cyberbegging, or Internet panhandling, a less public alternative to standing on a street corner with a tin cup.

It started in 2000 and hit the mainstream two years later when a New York City woman who was burdened with debt launched, with much publicity, the Web address

Now, as financial stability continues to erode, cyber-beggars are inundating Internet panhandling sites and Craigslist, the free listing service.

"It's not surprising," said Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida. "The economy is such that the ability to get jobs has substantially deteriorated, so I would expect there are more people with more time available (to blog) than two years ago."

Road to bankruptcy

Iris Erb, 70, didn't know about cyberbegging when she started. In her mind, asking for handouts is "humiliating."

Sitting at her kitchen table, she recalls her life in Pennsylvania, where she and her husband lived before moving to Hernando County in 2005. The story is sprinkled with status symbols — "I drove a Mercedes. … We had a Lincoln" — and boasts about the various homes, condominiums and businesses they owned.

The Erbs sold the properties and their business, a party favors store, and, like many Northerners before them, brought their money to Spring Hill.

They bought the carwash business on Commercial Way, but contractual problems were soon compounded by a decrease in traffic as the economy soured. The business folded in December 2007.

The couple satisfied the bank loan by selling the property, but business-related debt led them to personal bankruptcy.

The situation doesn't seem so dire as you walk into the family's spacious three-bedroom home off Mariner Boulevard, where antique furniture still adorns the living room and a flat-screen television with cable service is mounted on the wall.

Reality rests in a ceramic bowl in the middle of the table. Iris Erb grabs the stack of bills.

The hefty one with the Chase logo is the home mortgage bill. It states they owe more than $192,000 and have fallen four months behind on payments.

It came down to: "Do I pay the bills, do I eat or do I pay Chase," Erb said.

She and her husband live with her son and daughter-in-law, making ends meet with food stamps and a Social Security check totaling $1,900 a month.

"We are sitting here waiting to see when the bank is going to evict us," she said.

The Erbs blame bad luck — "If I open a shoe factory, people will be born without feet," Iris said — but also admit mistakes. They mentioned a time when they were less than truthful about filing proper taxes and questionable business deals.

The trouble is rebounding in difficult times. Iris' husband, Michael, is a 65-year-old former elementary school teacher and substance addictions counselor looking for work. He writes daily on a personal blog he hopes to publish as an Internet book and scours online job postings. Iris Erb said she can't work because of her age and deteriorating health.

The question she confronts with the greatest difficulty is what makes her different from the thousands in Hernando who have lost jobs and homes and now must live life in the margin.

"It's not just me. I understand that," she said. "But when it comes to your front door, it's a different story.

A reality check

The Web site, where people can make donations with credit cards, features a lone message posted when the site debuted in February. It starts: "I am a great-grandmother who has fallen on hard times."

At the end, it claims gifts are tax-deductible, which isn't the case, experts said. Not to mention, the state requires anyone asking for money to create a trust account and notify the court, which the Erbs didn't know.

When the Web site first appeared, they e-mailed a few dozen family members and friends with a link. A few messages of support came, but only one check.

A longtime friend called and then sent a card with a $100.

"I am sending you more than I can afford. I will continue to pray for you," wrote Dianne McGill, who lives in Myrtle Beach.

Iris Erb is humbled by the donation but said she won't cash the check unless she meets her lofty goal of $100,000. She wants to use the money to buy a modest home in Spring Hill while the market is ripe.

On the Web site, her message is encapsulated in an excerpt from a country music song — a quote her husband found by searching "hope" in an online quote dictionary.

"I laugh/I love/I hope/I try/I hurt/I need/I fear/I cry.

"And I know you do the same things too/So we're really not that different, me and you."

Collin Raye's song describes his effort to get a girl too good for him.

It seems an odd choice to describe the Erbs' situation. But Michael Erb gives this clear-eyed explanation:

"At the same time, we are looking for a life that may be too good for us too."

John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.

Can you spare a dime online? Spring Hill family goes on Web with plea. 04/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 8:01pm]
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