Mr. Spam Man

Microsoft wants to shut him down. New York's attorney general wants to see him in court. But Scott Richter keeps thinking big.

"We believe Scott Richter is clearing several million dollars a month in profits from his illegal activities," Spitzer said. "We will drive [him] into bankruptcy."

Richter fired back on his Web site and in interviews, denouncing Spitzer's suit as a "smear campaign" and blaming the deceptive e-mails on a subcontractor. He says he plans to countersue Eliot Spitzer -- a man who's made mutual-fund moguls and Wall Street investment firms tremble.

"All you have to do is say the word 'spam,' and people jump," Richter grumbles. "But Spitzer overstepped his boundaries. You can't say you're going to bankrupt a business. I say bring it on."

Bravado aside, the lawsuit couldn't have come at a worse time for Richter and his company. A week before Spitzer vowed to ruin him, Richter's lawyers filed suit in Denver against seven former employees, claiming the group had stolen precious mailing lists, destroyed data and set up a competing company in an effort to bury OptInRealBig. And Richter now finds himself in a media spotlight at a time when he's coming off probation from a felony conviction arising from a fencing investigation two years ago -- a subject he's not at all eager to talk about.

But none of these distractions have slowed him down. If Microsoft and headline-grabbing state officials are after him, he argues, it's only because he's so good at what he does, so effective, so...big. Last month, he says, despite Spitzer's attack, or maybe because of it, OptInRealBig generated 337,000 leads for its clients -- that is, the company steered that many prospective customers to client Web sites, where they could sign up for a service or order a product. That's up from 280,000 the month before.

"Bad press, good press -- all I usually get is bad, but it doesn't really matter," Richter says. "It helps build my business."


HEY CUTIE! CAN WE MEET?The first reported instance of spam dates back to 1978, when Gary Thurek, a marketing manager for the Digital Equipment Corporation, sent a mass invitation to a company open house over ARPAnet, a network of military and university computers that was the forerunner of the Internet. Thurek wrote the message in all capital letters, the e-mail equivalent of shouting in someone's ear.

The strategy sold a lot of DEC computers. It also earned Thurek a reprimand from system administrators, who told him never to pull such a stunt again.

In 1994, two immigration lawyers posted an ad pushing their services to thousands of electronic bulletin boards. The tide of outrage that greeted their solicitation seems almost quaint now; many citizens of the emerging cyberspace community believed that the Internet could not and should not be prostituted to such crass commercial ends.

Ten years further down the road, the use of junk e-mail has exploded. According to statistics gathered by Brightmail, spam accounted for roughly 40 percent of all e-mail traffic at the start of 2003; by the end of the year, it had increased to almost 60 percent. At America Online, the world's largest service provider, the figure is already at 80 percent. AOL filters 2.5 billion pieces of spam a day, but a substantial backwash of the stuff still gets through. Yahoo reports dealing with five times the amount of spam that it received a year ago.

In one experiment, a fresh e-mail address was posted in an online chat room to see how long it would take spammers to locate it. The first piece of spam arrived at the address eight minutes later.

According to Jupiter Research, the average e-mail account received 2,200 pieces of spam in 2002. For those without the savvy or resources to filter, weed, firewall, use temporary addresses and otherwise protect their in-boxes, the message is drowning the medium. And what a message it is:

SEE HOW BARELY LEGAL BABYSITTERS MAKE SOME EXTRA CASH!

IS UR SMALL PEA NESS MAKING YOU SAD?

GIRL FROM CHURCH IS LOOKING FOR YOU!

VI@GRA FOR LESS!

And, of course, the ubiquitous "Hi," a come-on for just about anything. Not to mention the spam that promises to stop spam.

Just how much havoc the plague of virility pills and get-rich-quick schemes is inflicting on the Internet is hard to say. It's estimated that dealing with spam adds two dollars to the monthly bill of Internet users, and some analysts calculate the cost to businesses -- lost productivity, anti-spam software and the like -- in billions of dollars.

But the true extent of the damage is difficult to measure, from mistakenly deleted personal e-mails (what if a girl from church really islooking for you?) to spam-weary ex-surfers to bilked consumers (a recent Federal Trade Commission survey of 1,000 random, unsolicited e-mails found that two-thirds of them involved phony investment schemes or misleading claims).

As legislators, service providers and others have stepped up efforts to expel spam, the spammers have grown increasingly sophisticated. Some use gibberish or alternate spellings ("vi@gra") to defeat filters, misleading subject lines ("Re: Tuesday's meeting") to lure users into opening their mail, and fake return addresses and "spoofed" headers to fool the ISPs trying to block them. Some operate offshore and are virtually unassailable.

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