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Spam Kings by Brian S McWilliams

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Most businesses jump at the opportunity for free publicity. But none of the email marketers, or spammers, profiled in this book were eager to see their stories in print. In fact, some have even threatened lawsuits over its publication.

No wonder that Spam Kings is the first book to publicly unmask the people behind the junk email problem. As Jennifer Archie, a leading anti-spam attorney, recently told me, a spammer’s main protection is anonymity.

“Once you’ve exposed a spamming John Doe, he doesn’t have a legal defense. So he’ll guard his anonymity with everything he has,” says Archie.

By deftly using anonymity, spammers have tapped into a vast market. Since most spam-related sales transactions are furtive, reliable statistics are hard to come by. But a study published by the U.S.-based Direct Marketing Association estimated that consumers spent over $32 billion in 2003 on products and services advertised by email.

In the process, some say spam has nearly ruined email. Over 60 percent of all email traffic in the first half of 2004 was spam, according to email filtering firm Brightmail. (Only three years ago, the volume of unsolicited commercial email was just 8 percent of all message traffic.) In 2004, an estimated five trillion spam messages will clog Internet users’ in-boxes. AOL alone blocks over one billion spam messages every day. According to Ferris Research, junk email costs society $10 billion in lost productivity, filtering software, and other expenses.

Once a problem that vexed only Internet geeks, spam has now earned the ire of consumers, business leaders, lawmakers, regulators, and the mass media. For many, hearing “You’ve got mail” is no longer a happy sound.

The people behind the junk email problem are often unsavory characters running shady, if not outright illegal, businesses. So why descend into their world and find out what makes them tick? Why should we, as a society, need the gory details of how these high-tech hucksters make a buck?

As citizens, Internet-dependent businesses, and policy makers strategize for the next phase of the battle to save cyberspace, it’s my hope that Spam Kings can provide an enlightening and entertaining response to the edict “know thy enemy.”

Email was built on an architecture of openness and trust. But when spammers discovered the medium, they saw an opportunity that could be exploited. Like air pollution, overfishing, and roadside litter, spam represents the destruction of a public resource by private interests.

Internet users reacted to this overgrazing of their common land like angry villagers with pitchforks. They tried to run the junk emailers out of their virtual communities by publishing spam blacklists and closing off their networks to the abusers. In response, spammers learned a variety of stealthy tactics to disguise their acts and hide their identities.

Spam Kings chronicles five crucial years in the cat-and-mouse game between a dozen or so high-profile spammers and the people determined to drive them off the Internet. With perhaps thousands of spammers currently in operation and many, many people dedicated to fighting them, it’s nearly impossible to tell the whole story of the junk email conundrum.

But study the rise and fall of one spammer, Davis Wolfgang Hawke, and you will learn nearly all you need to know about the intractability of the junk email problem.

Hawke is the central figure of Spam Kings, but not because he’s the biggest spammer of all time. Hawke certainly had his successes. At the age of twenty-five, he became a millionaire by spamming penis-enlargement pills. In the process, he also became the target of numerous lawsuits designed to drive him out of business. A high-IQ chess player and honors student, Hawke chose spamming after his career as a brainy neo-Nazi leader imploded. Hawke put his pursuit of easy wealth ahead of everything else: his education, his family, his girlfriend, and even his own freedom.

Hawke’s hubris leads him into a series of confrontations with spam opponents, the most important of whom is Susan Gunn. Gunn, a forty-something, mild-mannered computer novice, was dragged into the fight when her America Online account overflowed with spam. In time, her alias “Shiksaa" would strike fear into the heart of spammers everywhere.

Like many junk emailers, Hawke has the misfortune of crossing paths with Shiksaa, who becomes a volunteer for the anti-spam organization named Spamhaus. Throughout the book, she helps to unmask scores of spammers, and even land some in jail.

Spam Kings is the chronicle of Hawke’s and Shiksaa’s parallel paths through the spam underworld. Along the way, readers meet a bizarre cast of characters, including:

Sanford Wallace

One of the original spam kings, Wallace insists that spam is a First Amendment right. He buries the Internet with the stuff in the mid-90s. You’ll learn what happens when lawyers from a dozen Internet service providers try to convince Wallace that there’s nothing constitutional about spam.

Jason Vale

A champion arm-wrestler and cancer survivor, Vale gets into big legal trouble with America Online and the Food and Drug Administration for sending out spams promoting Laetrile as a cure for cancer. Vale blamed his legal problems on anti-spammers in general and Shiksaa in particular. But in the end, it is his own disregard for the law that landed him in jail.

Rodona Garst

She is a middle-class, white-collar worker living in the suburbs. So why is she running stock pump-and-dump scams by email? That’s what an anti-spammer wants to find out when he hacks into Garst’s computer and posted the embarrassing contents on the Internet.

Thomas Cowles

He’s a lanky computer genius in Ohio who develops an assortment of technical tricks to “anonymize” his spams for everything from mortgages to pornography. But as it turns out, a short, middle-aged woman in his hometown tracks him down, outs him on her web site, and ultimately helps law enforcement put him behind bars.

Terri DiSisto

Not everyone is in junk email for the money. DiSisto spams the Internet in search of young men willing to sell homemade videos of themselves being tickled. But when Internet users decide to dig into DiSisto’s past, they discover something shocking.

Alan Moore

Unlike most spammers, Moore doesn’t hide behind fake names (although he prefers that his diet-pill customers call him “Dr Fatburn”). Moore even publishes his home address in his junk emails. But it turns out that Dr. Fatburn also has a big business selling pirated software via spam, which puts him in the legal crosshairs of two of the biggest technology companies in the world.

Scott Richter

He’s a serial entrepreneur who discovers spam relatively late in the game. From the start, he forges alliances with anti-spammers as he builds one of the Internet’s biggest “opt-in” junk email operations. But after Richter double-crosses Shiksaa, his empire begins to crumble. Soon, he’s staring down the barrel of twin lawsuits from Microsoft and New York State.

You will discover that the line between spammers and anti-spammers is not always clear. The uneasy alliances between the two sides are shown here—along with the story of a handful of spam fighters who cross over to work for the “enemy.”

This book is descriptive, not prescriptive. There is no Final Ultimate Solution to the Spam Problem (although you will find some buried treasure on how to keep your in-box free of junk email). Spam Kings may not show you the road toward solving the spam problem. But after reading this book, you will know precisely how we got where we are today.

Brian McWilliams

Durham, New Hampshire

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