Fred Elbel spends his days as a mild-mannered Littleton computer consultant and his nights in what he describes as an epic struggle. "It's a war," Elbel says, "and I'm caught up in one of the biggest battles."
Elbel's enemy is unsolicited electronic mail, and he's one of several local residents--including an unsuspecting University of Colorado student now embroiled in what could be a precedent-setting lawsuit--who've emerged as leading figures in the ongoing fight to put a lid on "spam."
Junk mail that comes through the U.S. Postal Service is bad enough, says Elbel by way of explaining his personal crusade. But junk e-mail is even worse. "I can throw out junk mail, and it only costs the person sending it--but with spam it costs me money every time I get one," he says. "If you got mail postage-due and it turned out to be junk mail, it would really hack you off."
Spam costs Elbel money because, like millions of Internet users, he pays for his online time. Getting five or ten of the long messages each day eats up time while the meter is running.
Not content to just complain about it, Elbel decided to take action. In 1996 he started a Web page packed with information about how to fight spam, and he says he's counseled countless people on ways to get themselves off spam lists.
"Fred is one of the top spam fighters in the country," says Charles Oriez, a Littleton-based lobbyist for the Association of Information Technology Professionals. That organization has made the fight against spam its top priority. Not only is spam costly for individuals, says Oriez, but there's so much of it that it's beginning to bog down the entire Internet.
Elbel says he knows his message is getting across because he's regularly "mail-bombed" by spammers who want to punish him for trying to shut them down. Sometimes he'll be bombed with fifty or sixty copies of a single message. "They are trying to escalate the war," Elbel says.
But while he seems to enjoy skirmishing with spammers, Elbel advises the average Internet user to lie low. In fact, he recommends not even complaining about spam. Some unsolicited e-mail messages include an electronic address to which users can write and ask to be removed from the list of recipients. But Elbel says unscrupulous advertisers will "harvest" that name as a valid e-mail account and continue sending spam.
Elbel says he doesn't bother to read the five to ten unwanted messages he receives on an average day, many of which are reminiscent of the ads featured in supermarket tabloids or on late-night television. "If you could ELIMINATE or reduce your GASOLINE and LONG DISTANCE expenses and earn a lucrative income, would you be interested?" reads one recent spam-o-gram.
Dan Murray, founder of the Rocky Mountain Internet Users Group, says the screaming tone of most spam violates an electronic culture that has been carefully nurtured for years. "It's a very person-to-person medium," he notes, "and spam degrades that." Unsolicited e-mail can also pose an economic threat to businesses such as InfoBeat, a Denver company with 65 employees that is the largest subscription e-mail service in the world. InfoBeat sends a customized news update every day to about 2.3 million Internet customers. The problem for the company is that some Internet providers are now trying so hard to block spam that they end up blocking InfoBeat as well.
"[Those providers] are just trying to protect their members," says Cheryl Gordon of InfoBeat. "But they end up causing headaches for us and for our readers." For that reason, Gordon says, her company is fighting spam itself and has an iron-clad policy against either sending unsolicited messages or granting anyone access to its mailing list.
Spam distributors know they're unpopular. Several local Internet users, for instance, say they've received spam from Fleet Solutions of Niwot. A man answering the phone at that firm wouldn't give his name, refused to answer any questions about e-mail, and hung up on a reporter twice.
Spam purveyors also sometimes hide their real identities by placing fake return addresses on their messages. Occasionally, these phony addresses actually belong to unsuspecting Internet users, who wind up getting reams of hate mail as a result. In one high-profile case, the unfortunate victim was Matthew Seidl, a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Last January Seidl fired up his computer and found his in-box jammed with 2,000 messages, most of them vitriolic responses to an unsolicited message sent by a mortgage company. He says the company had used the address of his server as the return address on its unsolicited e-mail.
The mail so overwhelmed the capabilities of his system that he had to shut down for several days. Before it was all over, he had received 7,000 messages. "By the time I was done reading one message, I had ten new ones," Seidl recalls.
Seidl says the incident cost him a lot of time, money and aggravation, and he decided to sue for damages. His lawsuit is now pending in U.S. District Court and could become a landmark case, since a number of other companies and individuals have filed similar legal actions on the heels of his suit. The defendants in Seidl's case have filed a counterclaim, alleging defamation of character and claiming that Seidl and his lawyer conspired to trap the company. Seidl denies doing anything other than trying to prevent what happened to him from happening to anybody else. "If I didn't think I was fighting the good fight here, I'd just drop the whole thing," he says.
Elbel says he's watching Seidl's case closely and is also actively supporting a bill now before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications. That measure, sponsored by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, would make spamming a crime. But even if the law passes and Seidl wins his lawsuit, Elbel says spam will likely march on, operated from overseas if necessary.
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One of the nation's most visible spam merchants, Sanford Wallace of Philadelphia, agrees. The reason it won't go away, he adds, is that enough people respond to spam that he and other marketers make barrels of money from it.
That financial success keeps Wallace going in the face of vociferous protests from people like Elbel and Oriez--and even the occasional anonymous death threat phoned to his home. "Every time I send something else," he complains, "I have a mob of computer nerds yelling at me."
Wallace admits that the e-mails he sends out are a hassle. But he says they're less invasive than a telemarketing phone call. "It's also less invasive than somebody walking into my living room," responds Elbel. "But what they are invading is my wallet, because I'm paying for that e-mail."
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