"Anybody with a $500 computer, $100 worth of e-mail software and an Internet connection can reach a million people," says Pete Wellborn, an anti-spam attorney for EarthLink.
Wellborn, who seems to enjoy his nom de guerre, "Spammer Hammer," knows whereof he speaks. In May, he won the company a $16 million civil judgment against Howard Carmack, aka "The Buffalo Spammer." Carmack, a 36-year-old ex-high school jock who still lived with his mother, is accused of sending out 825 million hunks o' spam from his home computer before the ISP managed to track him down.
In the year that EarthLink spent trying to identify him, Carmack managed to elude his pursuers by allegedly splicing into a neighbor's phone line; bouncing his messages across several continents to hide their source; using fake names; stealing strangers' online identities; and exploiting friends and family members alike.
For instance, when EarthLink investigators located the spammer's phone number, it led them to an answering machine in a Buffalo, NY, personal-care home apartment occupied by Carmack's mentally disabled brother.
Usually, being hit with a multimillion lawsuit produces what Wellborn calls the "Oh, shit! factor," but not with Carmack. Even after finally being served, he continued to send out millions of e-mails hawking such must-haves as cable de-scramblers and "herbal sexual stimulants," Wellborn says. The spammer now also faces felony identity-theft charges under New York state law that could net him seven years behind bars.
EarthLink, the country's third-largest ISP, has also been the most aggressive when it comes to nailing spammers. Wellborn explains that, contrary to popular belief, an ISP's network is private property, which means it can set its own rules of conduct among users, such as "no unsolicited advertising."
To send spam to EarthLink subscribers in violation of its user agreement is the legal equivalent of unlawful trespassing, he says. If that sounds far-fetched, then consider Wellborn's string of court victories: a $2 million civil judgment against the self-proclaimed "King of Spam," Californian Sanford Wallace, in 1998. Last year, he won a $25 million judgment against a Tennessee man who sent out more than 1 billion unsolicited e-mails, many containing viruses he used to manipulate his victims' computers.
That particular spammer had allegedly earned at least $3 million, in addition to costing EarthLink an estimated $1 million, if you use the accepted formula that every million e-mails carries $1,000 in bandwidth costs.
But Carmack was no high-flying e-commerce mogul. Quite the contrary; he was a work-a-day spammer-for-hire who apparently was more than willing to annoy the entire US population three times over for about what you'd earn flipping burgers at McDonald's.
One "herbal remedy" retailer who hired Carmack to handle his marketing told authorities that out of 10 million e-mails sent, he made 20 sales, netting a less-than-grand total of $300.
So what's the point of all that effort and risk when there's so little to be gained?
"Every spammer thinks he's going to be the one who's gonna grab the brass ring," Wellborn says dismissively.
And yet, because of e-mail's low overhead, there is a great deal of money to be made by e-marketers who manage to evade ISP lawsuits, fraud charges and spam filters. Mostly, it's being made by companies or individuals, like Carmack, hired to send spam for other companies. Or by e-mail retailers with a knack for knowing what appeals to online impulse buyers -- i.e., porn sites. Or by modern-day snake-oil salesmen whose products -- real or imaginary -- would have been advertised a decade ago in the back pages of sleazy men's magazines.
Referred to coyly by the Federal Trade Commission as "organ enlargement offers," these ubiquitous e-mails seem targeted at guys whose brain power is directly proportional to the size of their johnsons. Which means there are plenty of suckers out there.
Consider the case of C.P. Direct, a Scottsdale, AZ, company busted last year for credit-card fraud and making outlandish medical claims for various herbal products. C.P. offered pills for enlarging the penis and breasts, growing taller, avoiding baldness and even making the customer a better golfer.
Not surprisingly, an estimated 90 percent of the company's revenues came from Longitude, its penis-enlargement pill that was said to work by expanding the "soft tissue" around blood vessels.