HistoryThe original "MAKE.MONEY.FAST" letter was written around 1988 by a person who used the name Dave Rhodes. Biographical details are not certain, and it is not clear that this is even the person's actual name. It is often said, such as in the FAQ for the net.legends Usenet group, that Rhodes was a student at Columbia Union College, a Christian college in Maryland, who wrote the letter and uploaded it as a text file to a nearby BBS around 1987.
It is also often said that Rhodes was convicted of some fraud-related crime and that as part of his sentence he had to create an anti-spam website, but no evidence of this has been found. Sites that appear to be such a site, for example http://daverhodes.etee2k.net, are apparently hoaxes.
The scam reached the Internet, where it was forwarded over e-mail and Usenet, although it was not until spamming became a major problem in 1994 that "MAKE.MONEY.FAST" exploded. It became one of the most persistent spams in existence and multiple variations have evolved, often by spammers who change the subject of their email to "This really works!" or "You are a winner!"
Mechanics and legalityThe letter encouraged readers of the email to forward one dollar in cash to a list of people provided in the text, and to add their own name and address to the bottom of the list after deleting the name and address at the top. Using the theory behind pyramid schemes, the resulting chain of money flowing back and forth would supposedly deliver a reward of thousands of dollars to the ones participating in the chain, as copies of their chain spread and more and more people sent one dollar to their address.
The text of the letter originally claimed to be "perfectly legal", citing Title 18, U.S. Code, Sections 1302 (which deals with postal lotteries) and 1341 (which deals with mail fraud). The U.S. Postal Inspection Service cites 18 USC 1302 when it asserts the illegality of chain letters, including MMF:
[Chain letters are] illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. Chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute.
It also asserts that "[r]egardless of what technology is used to advance the scheme, if the mail is used at any step along the way, it is still illegal." The U.S. Postal Inspection Service asserts the mathematical impossibility that all participants will be winners, as well as the possibilities that participants may fail to send money to the first person listed, and the perpetrator may have been listed multiple times under different addresses and names, thus ensuring that all the money goes to the same person.
As of this writing, few chain letters use the U.S. mails to transmit the money. A common chain letter suggests that the participant transfer $6 using the Paypal electronic funds transfer service to send $1 to each of 6 people. However, the mathematical impossibilities of the claims noted in the U.S. Postal Inspection Service blurb survives the change in medium and pyramid schemes are still illegal in most places around the world, possibly as investment frauds or consumer frauds or illegal lotteries. (You pay for what amounts to a tiny chance on a prize.)
Paypal prohibits its use for payment of membership in pyramid schemes.
MMF parodiesThe chain letters follow a rigidly predefined format or template with minor variations (such as claiming to be from a retired lawyer or claiming to be selling "reports" in order to attempt to make the scheme appear lawful). They quickly became repetitive, causing them to be bait for widespread satire or parody. For example, one parody claimed to be the first such chain letter saying that palaeontologists recently deciphered a statement painted on a cave wall that begins "MAKE SPIKY CLUBS FAST!!!"
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