CHICAGO -- They make their pleas for help via the World Wide Web. Some are struggling single moms or recent college graduates loaded down with student loans and maxed-out credit cards. Others are childless couples seeking treatment for infertility. One site even makes a pitch for a cat named Buster.
The tales of woe vary. But the request is the same: They want people to send money via home pages that are becoming a cottage industry on the Web. Skeptical Internet experts have even coined a term for the trend; they call it "cyberbegging."
Take Mandy Aylward, a 23-year-old fashion major and waitress from Chicago who created a Web site earlier this month to try to pay off nearly $30,000 in school and credit-card debt.
So far she says the project has only raised about $160 -- some of it from her mom. But she hasn't lost heart: "I am looking for a generous soul to get me out of a bind," she says.
Brian Nolan, a self-described "real, 26-year-old, kindhearted, hardworking, aspiring paramedic" from Los Angeles County, says he's having more luck. More than $40,000 in debt when he posted his site in November, Nolan says now regularly receives more than $1,000 a week in donations.
"I'm sure I could pay off my own debt someday," Nolan says. "But why not take the help now if I can get it?"
Cyberbegging started gaining momentum late last year after a 29-year-old New Yorker named Karyn Bosnak claimed that members of the public sent enough money to SaveKaryn.com to help pay off more than $20,000 in debt.
A TV producer-turned-"cyber-celebrity" has since signed a publishing contract for her story and expects to finish her book later this year.
Some experts who study the Internet question the claims from Bosnak and others that they're making money from their Web sites.
"I'd like some proof," says Steve Jones, chairman of the communications department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Bosnak, who would respond to questions only by e-mail, declined to offer financial records until her book is out. Nolan provided a bank statement showing weekly deposits to a checking account -- including some from PayPal, an online payment service -- with payments to credit card and student loan companies.
The key to his success, he says, has been creating a site that is visually appealing, updated regularly -- and that makes for "fun, light" reading. Desperate sob stories, he says, tend to be a turnoff to many Web surfers.
Christine Kent, whose cat is featured at SaveBuster.com, agrees, and says a lot of people who've created pages have misunderstood why Bosnak got so much attention.
"Her site is genuinely fun to read," says Kent, a public relations consultant whose own site actually raises money not for herself or Buster, but for a San Francisco nonprofit that helps people with AIDS and other illnesses keep their pets.
Kent says donating money to such sites is like spending money on a magazine, or paying a cover charge to see a band.
"I bet a lot of people thought, 'Hey, she amused me for 10 minutes so I'll send her a couple of bucks,'" she says.
That's exactly why Meg Cadwell, a 23-year-old medical research administrator from Clearwater, Fla., sent a few dollars to both Bosnak and Kent -- though she doubts she will donate on the Web again.
Financial planner Michelle Hoesly also applauds the "creativity and initiative" of the people who've created the sites.
But she's worried that, too often, people in debt look for someone to bail them out -- "whether it be winning the lottery or having some rich guy or woman step in," says Hoesly, a spokeswoman for the Million Dollar Round Table, an organization of finance professionals.
She says most people would be wiser to change the behavior that got them in debt in the first place -- and then create a plan to pay it off themselves.
Penny Hawkins, a nursing student and mom from Lakewood, Wash., who caused a stir when she posted a site called HelpMeLeaveMyHusband.com, says she's certainly heard that message. (So far, she says she's raised about $2,000 of the $12,000 she needs to pay for tuition and daycare, allowing her to leave her husband, who is aware of her plan.)
One visitor to her site, who said he had financial troubles because of a health problem, wrote: "I didn't go asking for money from strangers to help me. I just had to re-budget my income and bills."
The hate mail got so bad for one suburban Seattle couple, who were seeking help with in vitro fertilization, that they withdrew their Web site.
But many Web surfers, Hawkins says, have been encouraging and regularly track her progress, even if they don't send a donation.
Says Hawkins: "It's really helped motivate me."
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Martha Irvine can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org