The Other Side

Mail server application to cloak your identity: $1,000. Internet service provider account: $10 a month. Bulk mailing list: $20. For a midlevel spammer like "Steve," that investment can be recouped in a day.

Six years ago, Steve bought a list of e-mail addresses to hit with pitches from adult Web sites. Since then, he's grown that list (and its value) about tenfold by trading with other spammers.

And there's the spammer's most powerful tool: his cohorts.

For a $29.99 membership fee, sites like BulkBarn.com offer 300,000 "fresh bulk e-mail addresses" weekly (1 million for another $20), bulk e-mail starter kits and free bulk e-mail software.

"They started out as little script kiddies, and they turned into big companies," Steve says. "People troubleshoot there, just like any other business."

Big business it is - with all the pressures that suggests. In fact, Steve has already entered semiretirement as a spammer at the ripe age of 32. He took a job this year as a Microsoft engineer at a Washington-based government agency. "I was getting too old to do it full time," he says. Still, spamming in his free time, he subsidizes his income by about $40,000 annually.

The problem with spam-fighting tools is that they wage war against the wrong enemies, says Dan Clements, CEO of CardCops.com, an advertising and credit card fraud watchdog group. The true beneficiaries of spam are the big businesses that pay spammers a portion of their revenues to bring in new customers, all the while turning a blind eye to their renegade marketing tactics, he says.

Steve concurs, and he even has lists of sites that offer little or no resistance to spamming. As long as he can zap out 400,000 adult e-mail messages, get 30 hits and collect $1,000, he'll keep at it.

While the spam community is strong, so, too, is the antispam community. Organizations such as The Spamhaus Project and the Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC publish information on known spammers. But in order to truly wipe out spam, an international body of law must be created, says Gartner analyst Joyce Graff. And that's at least a decade off, she adds.

In the meantime, even though Steve wishes away the junk mail that clogs his in-box, he still benefits from the way the system works.

"I hate spam," he says. "I've gotten death threats. People have threatened to kill my dog. . . . But when you make a thousand bucks in one day, you could care less."

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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