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October 27, 2004

"Spam Kings": The Real Story Behind the High-Rolling Hucksters Pushing Porn, Pills, and @*#?% Enlargements

Sebastopol, CA--At one time, spammer Davis Wolfgang Hawke grossed more than $600,000 per month selling herbal male enhancement products over the Internet. His customers came from all walks of life--CEOs, mutual fund managers, soldiers, housewives, landscapers--in other words, people who should have known better. Most people consider spam to be at least an irritation; many consider it to be more: a scourge, a significant drain on resources and money, a violation of the sanctity of one's personal computer, even an assault against one's moral sensibilities.

With spam making up more than sixty percent of today's email traffic, it is indeed a problem, but is the problem solely the fault of the spammers? Brian McWilliams, author of Spam Kings: The Real Story Behind the High-Rolling Hucksters Pushing Porn, Pills, and @*#?% Enlargements (O'Reilly, US $22.95, hardback), explores the shadowy world of the people responsible for today's junk email epidemic. McWilliams reveals the motivations and practices of the people who fill our email in-boxes with spam, but he also points out, "Hawke's customer list just underscores one of the key issues of the book. Spammers are willing to put up with all sorts of wrath and attacks because they honestly believe customers want what they have to offer."

McWilliams, an experienced investigative journalist who gained international attention in 2002 when he wrote about the contents of Saddam Hussein's email in-box for "Wired News," offers a fascinating account of activities of spam entrepreneurs in search of easy money. He chronicles the careers of several spam kings, including Hawke, the notorious Jewish born neo-Nazi leader. The book traces this twenty-year old neophyte's rise in the trade, which would make him a major player in the penis enlargement pill market--and eventually a millionaire and the target of lawsuits from AOL and others.

"Like a lot of people, I get tons of junk email," McWilliams explains. "But in May, 2003, I was deluged with over one hundred spams for pills from the same company, all in a two-week span. I managed to trace the messages to a firm in nearby Manchester, New Hampshire. I discovered spammers practically in my backyard, and I decided to tell the world about it.

"I set out to write about the dozen or so spammers whom I thought were the best representatives of this strange species," McWilliams continues. "But in the process of researching the book, I was surprised to learn how interconnected many of them were. There's definitely less than seven degrees of separation between the spam kings--and sometimes even between the spammers and their antagonists, the anti-spammers."

In addition to Hawke, McWilliams introduces readers to other bizarre denizens of the spam underworld, including Sanford Wallace, one of the original spam kings who insists that spam is a First Amendment right; Jason Vale, the champion arm-wrestler and cancer survivor whose spam messages promote Laetrile as a cure for cancer; Alan Moore, known as Dr. Fatburn to his diet-pill customers; Rodona Garst, middle-class, white-collar suburbanite by day, running stock pump-and-dump scams in her spare time; and a fascinating assortment of others.

But Spam Kings isn't just about spammers; it also tells the story of anti-spam cyber-activists, like Susan Gunn, a computer novice in California whose outrage led her to join a group of anti-spammers. McWilliams reports that in September 2004, the FTC recommended that Congress consider creating a bounty system for people who help catch spammers. Says McWilliams, "At present, anti-spammers hunt down spammers as unpaid volunteers, but that could change if Congress decides to put a bounty on a spammer's pelt."

In June, 2004, McWilliams notes, "AOL revealed that one of its employees had sold AOL's entire member database to spammers. One of the people who bought that list was Davis Hawke, the central figure of Spam Kings. Hawke's partner, Brad Bournival, was the unidentified source who cooperated with law enforcement and enabled them to arrest two men in June for the theft. The case is still pending, with indictments due any day."

McWilliams acknowledges that there are much bigger problems in the world than spam, "But on the Internet, it's arguably THE biggest problem, since junk email is limiting our ability to communicate, and communication is the whole point of the Internet." McWilliams points out that eventually technology will reduce spam back to a minor nuisance. "But in the meantime," he says, "the root of the spam problem is people; specifically, the folks who buy from spammers. There's a big market out there of what I call 'furtive shoppers'--people who want convenient, anonymous access to shady products like porn, fake Rolex watches, drugs without prescriptions, cable de-scramblers, and 'free' government grants."

Spam Kings sheds light on the technical sleight-of-hand--forged headers, open relays, harvesting tools, and bulletproof hosting--and other sleazy business practices that spammers use; the work of top anti-spam attorneys; the surprising new partnership developing between spammers and computer hackers; and the rise of a new breed of computer viruses designed to turn the PCs of innocent bystanders into secret spam factories.

Praise for Spam Kings:

"The inside story of who's behind all that junk filling up your inbox is both good reporting and a good read. All the scum-sucking bottom-dwellers of the spam underworld are represented, as well as many of the unsung heroes in the war against unwanted email. Spam Kings should be required reading for anyone who hates spam--which includes just about everybody except spammers."
--Daniel Tynan, contributing editor, PC World

Spam Kings deftly exposes these creeps, humanizes them, and helps us to understand how and why they do what they do. It isn't a pretty picture but is one we all should look at and understand. Read this book."
--Robert X. Cringely, creator of the PBS documentary, "Triumph of the Nerds"

"Like a deep-sea photographer, McWilliams brings us a shocking series of portraits of the bizzare creatures feeding and fighting at the bottom of the Internet. Anyone who has wondered what kind of person would send spam can find the answer here. The truth is stranger than fiction, and more disturbing, as their tentacles reach us daily."
--Jason Catlett, founder and president of Junkbusters Corporation

Further reviews of "Spam Kings"

Additional Resources:

Spam Kings
Brian McWilliams
ISBN 0-596-00732-9, 333 pages, $22.95 US, $33.95 CA
order@oreilly.com
1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

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