A Day in the Life of a Spammer
Bulk e-mail providers are getting lumped into the same category as scammers and porn peddlers, says one marketer in this look at a scourge of the Internet.
But his industry is about as unconventional as it gets. And if the anti-spam community discovered who he really was, it would go out of its way to make life as difficult as possible for a guy who profits from flooding your e-mail inbox.
''Richard Cunningham'' more than likely isn't his real name; he won't say one way or another. But that's the name that appears on the WHOIS record for Spamsoft.biz, a domain he owns. He's also attributed as the owner of Sencode.com, though a WHOIS query of that domain reveals the site's owner information is protected by a RegisterFly.com service called ProtectFly.
Cunningham's identity is even murkier in the online forums he frequents. In those, he's known as ''dollar'' or ''swank''. He communicates mostly via online boards like SpecialHam.com and private message boards, or with instant messaging clients like AIM and ICQ.
The moniker isn't one Cunningham, or anyone else in the business of bulk e-mail distribution, is fond of, understandably so, as he claims to send only legitimate e-mails. Bulk mailing, he said, has been lumped into the same category as illegal spam, which sports spoofed e-mail addresses or peddles in a variety of unsavory markets like porn and Internet scams, such as the Nigerian spam scam.
''The anti-spam community and media tends to like to blame us for all of it and if you notice, a lot of the time the so-called spam-related cases were, in fact, not spam related but scam related,'' Cunningham said in an e-mail interview. ''Notice how they try to say spammers are the culprits? It's another scheme to put a bad image to bulk-mail marketing; I investigate and turn in every single bit of these types of e-mails and operations I come across, as I cannot stand them either.''
The Birth of a Bulk E-Mailer
When kids dream of what they want to be when they grow up, bulk e-mail marketer probably doesn't rank as high as fireman or astronaut. So how does one become one of the great Scourges of the Internet?
Like many people in his generation, Cunningham grew up around computers and the Internet -- participating on BBSes and playing video games. Cunningham said running with the wrong crowd and coming from a troubled family life, along with getting tired of dreary nine to five work as a dish washer, telemarketer and telephone order operator, prompted him to start looking for other ways of making money ''without worrying about Johnny Law or stressing myself working for the man.''
The Internet of the 1990s provided for anyone with interest a plethora of money schemes that ranged from MLMs (multi-level marketing or network marketing) to referral programs creating ''set and forget'' business opportunity Web sites.
Cunningham moved on to Unsolicited Commercial E-mails (UCE) and mass-mailing software programs. Seeing that many of his programmer friends were making good money with homegrown applications, mainly targeted at AOL because of the ISP's difficulty keeping up with blocking technology, he began running his own spamming operations.
He also began to experiment with other mailing programs, such as Stealth Mass Mailer, Send-Safe, Golden Launcher and Desktop Super Server, putting aside some money each time and investing in other marketing schemes. In the waning years of the 20th century, Cunningham migrated from promoting others' products to running his own affiliate programs, designing his own marketing software and lending his services to other bulk-mail providers. It was an evolution brought about by the changing times and the growing clamor over junk e-mails and rise of the anti-spam community.
''The payoff for spam is not like it was in the old days,'' he said. ''It has changed tremendously over the years as more and more people got into the business, technology changed and people got wiser. In reality, you'd assume the more surfers, the more money, but it doesn't pan out that way any more; it's harder to make a living mailing now, and that's a fact.''
For his part, Cunningham claims the only products he deals with range from legal advertisements for herbal supplements or leads programs, a marketing strategy that matches people to a particular product. He said he's a firm believer in responsible bulk e-mailing -- using valid forms and valid ''Remove'' links and processing them; in other words, keeping ''your campaigns nice and clean'', he said.
When he does send out bulk e-mail campaigns of his own, which Cunningham said he does less these days than in years past, he sends between 30 million and 60 million General Internet (GI) e-mails a day for three or four days at a time. GIs are ''shot in the dark'' e-mail addresses that are culled from e-mail harvesting software, whose use does not target any particular demographic.
Ray Everett-Church is the co-founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), a group that spends much of its time trying to steer businesses and organizations away from marketing campaigns that could be construed as spamming.
He rejects the claim that any group or individual, whether or not they abide by the CAN-SPAM Act requirements, that conducts spam blitzes does so legitimately. For an e-mail to be legitimate in his eyes, the marketer must have had some prior business relationship to the recipient or the recipient has opted to receive the specific type of e-mails (called opt-in).
''At some level, the folks who are engaged in a business where they are sending out massive volumes that they couldn't possibly have the permission of all those recipients for, they know full well that they are not engaged in legitimate or responsible non-spamming activities,'' he said. ''You don't typically come up with 60 million e-mail addresses through a permission-based process.''
Everett-Church does believe that companies, and people, can be persuaded to steer their business away from activities that are causing all the fuss. He points to none other than Walt Rines, a notorious spammer in the 90s and a former associate of spam king Sanford Wallace. Rines built and sold a rather robust e-mail marketing architecture, he said, to a group of buyers who turned it into TargetMail, a fairly reputable e-mail marketing services company.
''There's nothing more powerful than enlightened self-interest,'' Everett-Church said. ''If you look at e-mail marketing and the tremendous opportunities that are in that space, and you look at spamming, you see that they are not compatible as far as longevity and long-term growth and opportunity.''