There have been beggars on the streets since streets were made of mud, but the biggest proliferation of panhandlers has taken place on the Internet, where you'll find tens of thousands of them, especially lately. • Many are desperate, their requests for cash to pay the mortgage or the electric bill peppered with capital letters and exclamation marks. • Others are middle class and simply want what they don't have: pretty teeth or bigger breasts, an engagement ring for a girl named Katy or a burgundy Hummer for a guy named Ed. • Most would not be comfortable taking up a position on a city corner with a cup. But they don't mind posting on one of the many sites that have popped up to accommodate the swell in their ranks.
"It's much less embarrassing," says Scott Keller, 46, an unemployed database administrator and father of three from Land O'Lakes who's struggling to find his next mortgage payment.
"I can't imagine myself standing on the street somewhere with a sign. Not even in nightmares. People can think degrading thoughts about the posts I've made, but I don't have to face them."
But with so many people asking for help — one site alone, savemesites.com, has 19,490 panhandlers — does it really work?
If you are desperate on the Internet, will someone save you?
Karyn Bosnak, a New York City shopaholic with a penchant for Prada, is considered the birth mother of cyberbegging.
In 2002, she was an unemployed TV executive in New York City with $20,000 in credit card debt. She launched a Web site, savekaryn.com, asking everyone to give her $1 or $2 to help get rid of the debt.
Her unique plea earned her an appearance on The Today Show. Within six months, people across the country had sent her more than $13,000. A book deal followed and now she is a novelist, having finished her second book.
Thousands copied her. There was helpjennifer.com, created by a woman with Lyme disease seeking to pay her doctor bills. And helpmeleavemyhusband.com, started by a woman who wanted to go to nursing school.
From there, sites sprang up that charged a fee to connect beggars with givers using PayPal: cyberbeg.com, donatemoney2me.com, millionairehelp.com.
That last one was started by Ericka Boussarhane of Pensacola, who says she is a day care provider. It promises to give its users access to millionaires. Cost to place an ad is $10, and $35 if you want to be among the "featured beggars" on the home page.
Boussarhane, 34, said she started the Web site after she posted her own ad on another site and got thousands of dollars toward her college education from two millionaires. She said she markets the site in entrepreneur magazines.
The other two Web sites, donatemoney2me.com and cyberbeg.com, also have Florida roots. But Florida is a tough state for Internet panhandling. It requires anyone asking for money to create a trust account and notify the court, something that state officials acknowledge is likely not taking place.
How well these sites work is debatable. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the Internet has become so saturated with panhandlers that very few receive any money anymore.
Even Bosnak, the woman credited with starting it all, thinks its time has passed. "The Internet today is a different place today than it was in 2002."
There are exceptions, if you can tell the right story. In June, a bride in Virginia Beach auctioned off a spot in her wedding party on eBay. The winner bid $5,700 (and turned out to be a representative for Dr Pepper and Snapple, which has since launched an online competition for a bridesmaid).
Probably the most lucrative panhandling enterprise on the Internet has nothing to do with poverty or the economy. "By far the most successful thing if you want free money on the Internet," said Steve Donohue, owner of savemesites.com, "is to get breast implants."
Jessica Levine of Tampa was scrolling through the Internet a year ago, looking for a contest to get breast implants, when she stumbled across a Web site promising to give them away. Levine, 28, said she raised $7,500, part from donors on myfreeimplants.com and part from a contest she won through the site.
"It's an alternative financing," said Levine, a marketing planner and daughter of former state Rep. Curt Levine.
The site was created by a pair of guys from California who got the idea from a waitress seeking bigger tips for bigger breasts. The site now generates $300,000 a month. In 2006, donors funded six surgeries. A year later, that number was up to 100 and they've done another 100 so far this year.
The site appears to be recession-proof, said one of its founders, Jay Moore, 30, of San Francisco. "We think we've found a topic that people are interested in."
On the drawing board: a site for transvestites seeking gender reassignment surgery.
Take a spin through the cyberbegging sites and you will see more woe than a Dickens novel.
The tales of desperation are both financial and emotional. A young woman who just lost a friend is "in desperate need" of someone to donate her next heroin fix. A woman who underwent female circumcision as a girl asks for $20,000: HELP ME RECONSTRUCT MY VAGINA. A mother asks for money to buy flowers for her son's grave.
An arthritic widow seeks a laptop, and a retiree needs a detective. Men want help to pay for vasectomy reversals; women seek help for tubal reversals. They want to undergo in vitro fertilization, adopt a baby, go to college, buy a dog, save a cat, pay a fine, get a Wii.
There are people who have lost their homes in hurricanes and fires, who are near death and waiting for Social Security disability, who are trying to fight foreclosure and alcoholism and eviction and repossession. They're sick, battered, homeless, helpless, depressed, drowning.
"I'm trying not to beg for help but I'm in a rough situation," said Karen Waldrop, 42, a single mother of two from Valrico who got breast cancer and couldn't work after a double mastectomy. "My bills are way overdue. My checking account is $200 in the hole."
Sometimes, though, the line between real and fake is extremely blurry.
"On the Internet, you don't know if a story is true or false," said Douglas McConatha, 59, chairman of the department of sociology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. "It may look very real and certainly the vulnerable will be attracted and give money where they can't afford it."
Granting a wish
Ian Sullivan, 33, of North Augusta, S.C., used to be a systems engineer. Now he doesn't work, his multiple sclerosis having got the better of him both physically and financially. He's one of thousands waiting for his disability hearing.
But he likes to do for others. So he went on wishuponahero.com, which was created to match those in need with donors.
With his computer background, Sullivan said he helped an Oklahoma woman who had bought a digital camera on eBay without directions. He also sent a $35 memory chip to a woman in Iowa who needed it for her computer.
Sullivan said it felt good to know he'd helped one person, even if he wasn't sure of the legitimacy of the request.
"Just even the possibility of it, whether or not she's like a complete genuine article through and through, I won't know. I know I did what I felt was right to do. I tried to help her out."
At the same time, Sullivan has also posted on a begslist help board for a Wii game system to "provide physical therapy" for his MS.
That was four months ago. He hasn't received a single donation.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.