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Spam King Gone, Spam Rolls On

Spam King Gone, Spam Rolls On

In recent weeks spam has rolled on—clumsy, repetitive come-ons for cut-rate Viagra, bank loans, urgent appeals for help moving money out of Nigeria, strident demands that you “verify” your bank account information, and on and on.

Then on May 30, Federal authorities arrested the man they called the Spam King: 27-year-old Richard Alan Soloway. In a Seattle courtroom he was arraigned on charges of mail fraud, fraud in connection with electronic mail, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering.

And last week, with Soloway sequestered, the flow of spam rose 8 percent.

Communications security firm Postini Inc. of San Carlos, CA, which posts the number of spam it filters for its clients on an ongoing basis, tallied 2.8 billion spams over the most recent seven day period, as opposed to 2.6 billion in the seven days previous to that when the Spam King was still at large. (Huge as the numbers are, they involve only the e-mail bound for Postini’s corporate clients. Postini figures that about 82 percent of e-mail traveling the Internet is spam, so the actual figure is approximately 100 billion daily.)

Royal spammers

It turns out that, despite press announcements put out by the Department of Justice, the Spam King was actually barely a member of the Spammer Royal Family.

According to data tabulated by the London-based Spamhaus Project, an international anti-spam organization, about 80 percent of the world’s spam is generated by a coven of about 130 separate spammers or gangs. Soloway was on the list, but he was not in the top ten, which consists of four Russians, two Ukrainians, and an Israeli, an Australian, an American, and a Hong Kong resident. One of the Ukrainian operations has its own bogus online bank.

The American was not Soloway, incidentally, but a Californian who operates servers that host other spam operations.

The wages of gullibility

But why do they bother? What profit can there be in sending out torrents of misspelled “Viagra” promotions?

“The vast majority of recipients throw it away, but spam is so cheap to send that the spammers can make money even with an infinitesimally small response rate—maybe one in a million,” John Levine of Trumansburg, NY, co-author of “Fighting Spam for Dummies,” told LiveScience. “Soloway supported himself for years sending spam, and reportedly made $700,000 per year at it."

While e-mail dispenses with the expense of paper, envelopes, and stamps, spammers go one step beyond that and use other people’s computers—infected machines that spew out spam in the background, Levine explained. Doing so multiplies the amount of spam that they can send, to the point that they can send millions of messages daily. The tactic also makes it harder to track the original spammer down.

Some of the larger spammers listed by Spamhaus also specialize in pump-and-dump schemes, where they send out spam touting a little-known stock that they have bought. Almost invariably, enough recipients buy it so that the price goes up, allowing the spammer to sell at a profit.