It seemed harmless, the chain letter from a colleague asking Jeffrey Pina to send his business card to Craig Sherford, a terminally ill 7-year-old British child whose last wish was to have his name entered into the Guinness Book of World Records.
"It wasn't a solicitation for money," Pina said. "It was a business card. So I said, `Why not?'"
It was a dying child seeking immortality, or so Pina thought. So he followed the directions, sending the letter to 10 friends.
Some complied, expanding the reach of a simple chain letter that has traversed continents. Others didn't, and it's probably a good thing.
A cancer patient with a similar name, Craig Shergold, does exist, but he is 13 or 14 years old now and, thanks to a successful operation to remove most of a brain tumor, no longer terminally ill. He has already been inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for garnering 17 million greeting cards by May of 1990. Guinness has since eliminated the category.
But the solicitation letters haven't stopped. And somewhere along the way, the greeting cards became business cards.
Now authorities, and Craig himself, hope anyone who gets one of these letters simply throws it away so they can stop the flood of business cards and outdated chain letters being send around Massachusetts and the world on his behalf.
"The point we'd like to get across is that Craig has had his wish, and it's his wish now -- and others' -- that people stop sending cards to him," said Linda Dozoretz, Fairy Godmother at the Atlanta-based Children's Wish Foundation.
Craig Shergold lives in Carshalton, England, but his request was being handled by the wish foundation, which facilitates last wishes for terminally ill children.
He began his quest in 1989 to become the person who had collected the most greeting cards.
Untold numbers of people across the country, who have not heard news of Craig's recovery, have been moved by the short chain letter, consisting of three sentences and an address.
"We get, on the average, about 30 packages a day and about 600 to 1,000 letters a day," Dozoretz said, adding that the agency receives up to 60 calls a day from concerned citizens interested in helping Shergold.
Massachusetts businesspeople are no exception.
"When you multiply 10 times 10 times 10, that's a phenomenal ratio," said Pina, director of public relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
Former US Rep. William E. Dannemeyer of California sent out a warning letter that brands the request for cards "a hoax," although there is no indication that the request was a hoax.
Despite television segments and several newspaper accounts of the issue, the letters and cards just keep coming.
On one hand, the chain letter sparks an outpouring of support.
"I think there's an awful lot of good people in the world who think this was a way that they could help," Dozoretz said.
On the other hand, a gesture of good will has blossomed into a nuisance for people who handle high volumes of mail.
"It started out being funny," Dozoretz said. But, she pointed out, workers spend less time fulfilling children's wishes when they must handle letters for Shergold.
Despite the good intentions, the correspondence goes to waste.
What's worse is that in some cases, the chain letter has been duplicated inaccurately, providing the wrong agency's name or misspelling Shergold's name as Sherwood, Sherford, or Sheford.
The popular Make-A-Wish Foundation's name has been added to the changing letter. Somehow along the chain, someone provided that agency's name instead of the Children's Wish Foundation, generating yet another headache for yet another agency.
"When word was getting around about Craig's wish, people assumed it was Make-A-Wish who was handling it," said Frances Hall, marketing director for the agency.
Hall said her agency receives about 1,00 calls each month about Craig. The firm has set up an 800 number explaining the controversy.
"It's amazing," Hall said. "We've seen business cards, holiday cards, greeting cards, birthday cards. It gives new meaning to the gang whisper down the lane."