Listen to your elders -- and avoid the family heraldic history scams

You may have seen TV ads for a customized personal history of your family name, printed out on faux-parchment and hallway-display-ready (the commercials are about as cheesy as Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia Obama's). You may have found your way to the Web site, typed in your personal information (note the "free" scroll costs $7 in shipping and handling -- big bucks for a computer printout -- and fended off the half-dozen or so attempts to get you to buy add-ons before placing your order.

But if you were expecting warm finding-your-roots feelings from your printout, er, scroll, hoping to learn you were descended, say, from a long, dignified line of Bavarian pretzel-bakers or Alsatian goatherds, you'll be disappointed.

At least I was, when my free $7 scroll arrived. Instead of a detailed history, there was a two-sentence summary of basic info any grandparent worth their salt would have passed on to you already, or that you could have found through the quickest of Google searches. (Or, while you were at it, you could have checked out the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation's search site. It's free.)

The rest is all boilerplate about the history of, well, why family names have history behind them.

Is this anyone's idea of value? Not mine. So I dug deeper into and found that it's the brainstorm of Michael Walshe, who's also the voice of the TV commercials with the plummy, though not high-born, British accent. He claims on one of his Web sites to be the creator of the Ginsu knife ("In Japan, the hand is quicker than the blade...but it can't be used on a tomato..."). Walshe also happens to be the director of the Historical Research Center, a franchise business (about £5,000 overseas, or $995 here., says the Center's general manager, Mike Dell).

The Better Business Bureau database lists Historical Research Center branches in Elmhurst, N.Y.; Hemet, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; Boston; Houston; Lethbridge, Alberta; Las Vegas; Myrtle Beach; and Santa Monica, Calif.

Although I've declined to investigate the new do-it-yourself genealogy disc Walshe is now selling, be aware that the whole family-heraldic-history gig was rife with scam artists centuries before the Web.

Chances are, for instance, your family doesn't have its own coat of arms. Someone with your family name may have once tried to create a coat of arms, but it was personal to them, so claiming it as yours is a sort of ancient identity theft.

Your family probably doesn't have its own kilt pattern, either, unless your name happens to be among the 70 or so original Scottish clans.

So if you're really interested in your family heritage, avoid the many online scams at uncovering your family secrets. Start with your grandparents, or at an established, reliable source such as Ellis Island in New York or Baltimore. Dig in with your hands and eyes, away from the computer, and with pride in your heart.
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