Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005

Downtown Express Photo by Elisabeth Robert

Matthew Lesko, author of “Free Stuff for Busy Moms,” at a recent appearance at the Wall Street Borders.

‘Question Mark Guy’ visits lower Manhattan

Helping mothers thru government red tape

By Angela Benfield

Sporting a literally questionable suit, Matthew Lesko gave a recent lecture at Borders to stressed-out mothers on “Free Stuff for Busy Moms.” You probably don’t know him by name, but you may have seen one of his late-night infomercials where he yells about “free money from the government” while waiving a handfull of hundred dollar bills. For the past twenty-five years, he’s been selling books in varying forms about it.

About twenty people sat and listened attentively as the enthusiastic Mr. Lesko told them how to use free government services, such as training for a job or starting a new business, while telling one-liners and pretending to trip or bang his head into the wall. All the while sporting a brown suit with orange question marks sewn onto it.

“Two out of three businesses are started by women,” said the 61-year-old Lesko, arms flailing wildly. He wants mothers to know that help is out there, but he cautioned that these programs are meant to do something in life, and not for sitting around and eating bon-bons at the expense of the government.

Lesko, who is married to his third wife and has two college age sons, also encouraged women to find out about government programs without buying his book. He said the information is available in the “Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance,” which you could access online for free. He said that all he did was cut and paste and put it together in a few books. Well, quite a few – everything from “Free Money For Your Retirement,” to “Free Money For a Better Home.”

His disclaimer lends credit to Lesko’s reputation, and is probably the reason he’s hitting the lecture circuit again after a long hiatus. The New York State Consumer Protection Board recently released a report stating that Lesko uses “exaggerations” and “distortions” in his advertisements. The report charges that Lesko’s claims of hidden government money are actually low-income entitlement programs. For example, his advertisement that the government gives away $328.00 a month to help pay rent is actually a Section 8 housing subsidy. However, while the report questions Lesko’s marketing, it does not allege that he is doing anything illegal.

Lesko contends that he is taking the heat for other scam artists who promise prospective victims that they could make thousands of dollars in government grants by purchasing their books. Although Lesko’s advertising could be misleading to someone who is trying to make a quick buck from the government, his books are actually filled with helpful information - such as free help to write a resume or where to get free college tuition if you’re over 65.
Over the last decade, Lesko has been working on selling his “government” books from his Washington D.C. home. He says that he’s always looking for new ways to market the same stuff. He admits that he’s written the same book over in different forms to target various consumer groups, but he believes that these marketing techniques promote awareness to those that need it. Because “the government doesn’t advertise.”

Says Lesko, this information never gets to the people it’s intended for.

Before he began running around shouting about free government money, Lesko worked out of his bedroom helping Fortune 500 companies get commodities information. Having been born and raised in the modest town of Wilksbarre, Pennsylvania, he was appalled that people like Donald Trump and Ross Perot were taking advantage of grant programs when the average Joe didn’t even know they existed. That’s how he got the idea for his first book.

As the lecture went on, it surprisingly took on an inspirational tone, with Lesko encouraging everyone to do something they love in life. “You lose your aches and pains when you do something you really want to do,” he exclaimed. But he added that you have to work to get the government to help you do what you want to do. At least seven phone calls are necessary when contacting an agency. “Because it takes effort, people don’t do it,” says Lesko.

Although Lesko said that anyone could get information on government grants without buying his book, people still lined up to get a signed copy at the end of the lecture.

“It’s not what I thought it would be, but it was helpful,” said one woman who was looking to change her life.

In addition to “Free Stuff for Busy Moms,” he has written “Free Money to Pay Your Bills,” “Free Money to Quit Your Job,” and “Free Money to Change Your Life.”

So, what is it with the question mark suit? “This is who I am on the inside,” said Lesko.

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