Mr. Spam Man


In Scott Richter's world, size matters.

Richter knows that Americans like things big. Bigger penis, bigger breasts. Big savings. Big chance to win big. Think big about the bigness people crave, and big profits could be yours.

Richter is a big fellow himself, 240 pounds or so packed on a 6' 1" frame. He used to be bigger, before he got into big-time weight loss. But these days, it's his business that's really big. His e-mail marketing company, OptInRealBig, controls a host of like-minded domain names, including SaveRealBig, RealBigCash, RealGreatGifts, RealBigHosting and LesbiansSizzle.com (lesbians, God knows, are big). At 32, Richter's already spent nearly two decades chasing the Next Big Thing -- and finding it, the past few years, in cyberspace.

Last April, as American forces marched into Baghdad, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks showed a group of reporters a mock-up of playing cards featuring the faces of Iraqi leaders sought for questioning. Right away, Richter knew this was going to be big, big, big.

The Pentagon had developed the cards as an intelligence tool, to be distributed to the troops. Richter saw them as the war souvenir the public had been waiting for. Within hours, his company was shooting out e-mails advertising the cards for sale -- more than 15 million e-mails, in fact. Richter moved 40,000 decks of the cards in a week, buying them for 89 cents each and selling them for $5.95. Yet at the time he started the blitz, he didn't have a single deck in stock. Nobody did.

"We sold them before we ever owned them," he recalls. "Wal-Mart would've taken three weeks to get them in. We knew we could find them, so we went to work."

Richter tells the story while bottle-feeding one of his five-month-old twin sons in the kitchen of his Westminster home. It's a clean, spacious, well-lit place, with a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in the foyer, three Rhodesian Ridgebacks cavorting on the back deck, and hockey trophies and a pair of giant flat-screen monitors towering over the desk in the den. It's the kind of house you'd expect a young, sober, hard-driving entrepreneur to inhabit with his young, budding family. It's also totally at odds with Richter's reputation among his enemies on the Internet, who regard him as one of the most notorious and "morally challenged" spammers in the world.

If you have an e-mail account and have ever been careless about the kind of information you scatter about while surfing the Web, chances are good that you've received mail from Richter. OptInRealBig boasts of having a list of 45 million e-mail addresses at its disposal, many with additional demographic or consumer-preference information. The company also e-mails to millions of other addresses provided by clients, who use Richter's services to hawk everything from diet pills and porn sites to vacation packages and Christmas toys. OptInRealBig sends out between 50 million and 250 million e-mails a day, generating close to $2 million a month in revenues.

According to the Spamhaus Project, a British-based organization dedicated to combating the expanding swamp of unsolicited e-mail, Richter's operation ranks as the third-largest source of spam on the Internet. "OptInRealBig.com and Richter's many aliases are 'block-on-sight' domains for most of the Internet's mail systems," states the group's profile of Richter. "Due to his massive spamming history, Richter finds it hard to get service from responsible Internet Service Providers."

Richter calls Spamhaus founder Steve Linford "the third-biggest moron in the world." He prefers to describe himself as a bulk e-mail marketer, not a spammer, insisting that his mailings are perfectly legal. They're also not unsolicited, he says, because the people on his lists "opted in" to receive commercial offers, whether they realized it or not.

"I'm not going to argue that there isn't one person in forty million who didn't subscribe," Richter says. "But we document where the addresses come from, and when people complain, we remove them from our list. What people don't understand is that the Internet isn't free. I make my money by signing you up at my Web site, getting your information, and using that information to figure out what you like."

Unlike many spammers, who hide behind layers of phony e-mail addresses and forged domain names, Richter has been a highly visible advocate for his industry. He's defended his methods in the New York Times, seen his stippled portrait grace the front page of the Wall Street Journal, made the Details list of the ten most powerful and influential men under the age of 38. "If I didn't make myself available to the press, they'd never hear the other side of the story," he says.

But last month, Richter's bid for legitimacy hit a brick wall -- make that two brick walls -- in the form of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the friendly spam investigators at Microsoft. A week before Christmas, Spitzer announced that he was filing suit against Richter, OptInRealBig and the principals of two other companies for allegedly sending millions of fraudulent e-mails over hijacked servers around the globe. Claiming to have evidence of "more than 40,000 instances of deceptive conduct" in nearly 9,000 e-mails captured on Microsoft's Hotmail service, Spitzer's suit seeks $20 million in damages; another suit filed by Microsoft seeks an additional $18.8 million.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast