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.

But the Spamhaus Project claims that 90 percent of the spam circulating throughout North America and Europe can be traced back to 200 spammers. And the vast majority of them are in the United States.


Scott Richter
John Johnston
Scott Richter
Talking trash: Microsoft attorney Brad Smith (left) 
watches as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer 
vows to delete Scott Richter's profits.
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Talking trash: Microsoft attorney Brad Smith (left) watches as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer vows to delete Scott Richter's profits.

Although he can talk upstreams and IPs with the best of them, Scott Richter is not your classic computer geek. He never got near a computer until a few years ago, and it took him some time to grasp the machine's true potential.

"I didn't know anything about computers," he says now. "All I knew was how to log into AOL. That's still about all I can do."

But long before he staked his claim in cyberspace, Richter was an opportunity geek. His parents split when he was eleven. His father left town, his mother was busy, and that left him with plenty of time on his own. (His father, attorney Steven Richter, is now general counsel and one of the owners of OptInRealBig.) Young Scott found out he enjoyed making money. Lots of money.

Opportunities were everywhere. School didn't interest him much, but he knew that kids spent a lot of money on candy. He could buy candy cheaper at a discount outlet than they sold it at the school store, so he did. He sold candy out of his locker and out of his backpack until the people who ran the official concession began to raise hell.

"I got suspended a few times for selling candy," he recalls. "I was making thirty or forty bucks a day. Then I was doing a hundred bucks. Then I was hiring other kids to do it. Finally, the agreement we reached was that the school store would buy their candy from me, and I wouldn't sell candy at school."

For his fifteenth birthday, Richter asked his mother for two gumball machines. He put them in an office-supply store. Not a great location, he discovered. He was soon plowing his paycheck from Taco Bell into more vending machines and putting them in bars and restaurants. The machines didn't pull in much, maybe a dollar a day per machine, but he had an eager supplier and a growing sense of what locations would work. "By the time I graduated from high school," he says, "I had a few thousand machines and two full-time employees."

Richter had been an indifferent student at Cherry Creek High School. Despite his head for numbers, he'd even flunked math. But it scarcely mattered. He went straight from high school to a cousin's restaurant in Park City, Utah, to learn about that business, taking a few days now and then to return to Denver and check on his vending-machine operation. He'd already branched into video games, landing the Super Saver Cinemas and other national accounts. The revenue was good, but the machines were expensive; he had to bring in around two grand a week just to make his payments to the supplier. Who had time for college?

Video games took him into more bars and restaurants. His first effort to open his own restaurant, a family-style joint on Pecos that was essentially turned over to him by an operator who owed him money, ended in frustration. The popular chain that controlled the lease on the place considered Richter a poor risk. He was, after all, only twenty years old.

But within a few months, he'd found another location -- an empty building in Thornton -- and transformed it into Great Scott's Eatery. That was followed by his first bar; in 1992, at the age of 21, he became the youngest liquor-license holder in the state. He began buying up cheap properties left over from the Front Range bust of the late 1980s -- warehouses, shopping strips, a big college bar in Greeley. His timing couldn't have been better; within a few years, as the economy took off again, virtually all of his real estate would appreciate handsomely. He opened three more Great Scott's restaurants in the metro area, as well as the Colorado Sports Cafe.

"Scott is very motivated, and one of the most intelligent people you'll ever meet," says Bob Nelson, Richter's longtime partner in the bar business. "He's got a gift. He can take whatever someone has and make it better. He's had some failures, but he's destined to be rich. The guy just works, works, works."

At one point, Richter dreamed of building a nationwide chain of restaurants. But the high turnover and tight profit margins of the business soon dissuaded him. Instead, he began fooling around with computers. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, someone was making a fortune on the Internet, and many of the sheiks of cyberspace were twenty-somethings like him. Surely it couldn't be that hard.

Five years ago, he hired some technical help and started putting together Web sites: SaveRealBig. RealCheapGifts. RealBigDeals. The idea was to put up a bunch of banners on a site and get paid by affiliates every time somebody clicked on a link and registered with an affiliate for a contest or a subscription or something. But there was nothing about Richter's sites that would lure traffic there in the first place.

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