The tale of two busted spammers

Reporter tracks down a pair of spammers to learn how they are harvesting e-mail addresses

Being a technology reporter, my e-mail inbox is a crowded place. It's stuffed with press releases, notices from mailing lists I subscribe to, invitations to events -- you name it, it's in there. Luckily, it's relatively free of spam. Although, occasionally, a few manage to slip by our Postini filter.

But within the last month, two messages made it past the goalie, catching my attention. Neither was relevant to my work.

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One was a pitch for sports tickets for Chicago teams; the other advertised a vacant plot of land for sale in Naples, Florida. They piqued my curiosity: Why did I get this? Who sent the messages?

The "why," of course, was obvious: They want my money, like innumerable other people who send unsolicited e-mail, a problem that's choking mail servers in addition to fueling an unprecedented amount of fraud on the Internet.

Both messages listed real people with real phone numbers in the U.S. So, I did what a journalist does: I picked up the phone and called.

Don McCauley is a Chicago-based recruiter who sells tickets for teams such as the Chicago Bears football team and Cubs and White Sox baseball teams. His pitch offered tickets without fees or shipping charges.

I haven't been to Chicago in more than two years and am not planning to go there. I've never used McCauley's services before, and I know I haven't opted in for any sports-related e-mail lists on my work address. In fact, I'm not a huge baseball or U.S. football fan.

I called McCauley and asked him how he got my address. "I believe I found your e-mail address just through my normal research," McCauley said. "I call it harvesting e-mails."

I explained I hadn't opted in to receive this kind of e-mail, and it was all a bit baffling to me. I told him I considered it spam.

McCauley said he had discovered some "very cool techniques" for finding e-mail addresses, such as taking e-mail addresses from brochures for conferences in Chicago. I told him those e-mail addresses aren't intended to be used for unrelated marketing, and the practice may well violate the laws against spam.

He wasn't able to tell me exactly how he obtained my address (it can be easily scraped from several Web sites) or why I was targeted.

As the interview progressed, McCauley said he doesn't understand why people "think their e-mail address is the Holy Grail of contact information." He said he includes his phone number and address at the end of the e-mail and will unsubscribe people from his mailings.

In fact, someone else recently had the same idea I had. McCauley said he received a voice mail from a woman who wanted to be unsubscribed and was just as surprised as I was to actually be able to reach a live person. He also indicated he had received more aggressive complaints about his e-mails.

He justifies the practice because he gets some positive responses: "The people I have e-mailed are very happy to have received my messages. They far outweigh the ones that don't. I'm not selling Viagra. I'm not selling penis enlargement. I don't sell kiddie porn."

But why does he continue to do it?

"I don't think I'm breaking too many rules," McCauley said. "I'm never fearful of [repercussions from] anyone via e-mail. I don't think I'm much different than the television commercial or the ad that's in the newspaper.

"If it translates out to some minor law or some major law is broken, then fine. But I feel, in the grand scheme of things, I am doing a service to this city, this [customer] and myself," McCauley said.

The Florida real estate spam was a bit trickier to track down but had several interesting characteristics. With the subject line "2.5 acres -- Very Close In -- Hot Buy," it offered a tract of land in Naples, Florida, a well-known destination for retirees.

The e-mail had photos of some scrubby trees, and there was no house on the lot. It was advertised for $130,000, offered by real-estate agent Michael A. Manuri, who gave his instant message handle.

The e-mail was odd, though: It came from a domain owned by Spam Arrest, a Seattle-based antispam company that offers an e-mail verification service. If you subscribe, Spam Arrest will send a verification notice to any new senders. When the sender has completed the verification -- a one-time, one-click process -- an e-mail from that address won't be blocked. It works since most spammers won't verify their e-mails.

I called Spam Arrest. Ironically, they confirmed, Manuri is a customer. Manuri also takes measures on his Web site to guard his e-mail address "to thwart the thousands of spam e-mails that I receive."

Spam Arrest said it offered free e-mail accounts between 2003 and 2004 but stopped after some accounts were used to spam. The company confirmed that Manuri sent around 1,000 messages such as the one I received.

"He's sent out very, very few e-mails in his time here at Spam Arrest, and the e-mail that he sent contains rather large images that don't lend well to mass mailing," said Michael Nguyen, who handles the technical group and customer service for Spam Arrest. "Regardless, we'll let him know that his mailings to you are unwanted."

So, why would a person who supposedly hates spam send spam?

Manuri finally sent me an e-mail after repeated phone calls and attempts to contact him by instant message. He found my e-mail address by using a software program that collects e-mail addresses from Web pages and said that mine was harvested after he used the keyword "Germany."

Germans are apparently flocking to Florida to buy homes because of the investment opportunities owing to the depressed U.S. economy. Manuri wrote that times are tough in the real-estate industry and that he has taken two jobs.

Nonetheless, I am a pretty poor target for this kind of marketing, considering I'm decades away from being able to retire to Naples. I went to Germany to the Cebit trade show in March, but that's my only recent connection to the country.

"I am not a spammer, and it's very rare when I do a campaign outside my sphere of influence (local Realtors)," Manuri said. "Again, I'm simply attempting to make a sale."

Spam Arrest told me Monday they've now closed Manuri's account due to another complaint.

Neither McCauley nor Manuri are big-time spammers compared to the likes of Robert Soloway, one of several so-called "spam kings"  who was sentenced last week to 47 months in prison for sending millions of e-mails.

However, both gentlemen are harvesting e-mails from Web sites, which is prohibited and could garner them a fine, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines on CAN-SPAM or the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act.

It's clear that CAN-SPAM is not taken seriously by a lot of people who view sending spam as just a slight breach of a law that's lightly enforced.

But maybe unsolicited e-mail senders can learn another lesson: If you're breaking the law, at least try to avoid spamming technology reporters who might want to ask you a question or two.

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