Will the Real Spam King Please Stand Up?
As more and more spammers are arrested, prosecuted, and sued under state and federal antispam statutes, there's one thing you can count on: Someone somewhere will invariably call the targeted spammer a "spam king."
It seems the bulk e-mail industry has more kings than a pinochle deck. But who is really the king of kings? The following ten spammers are all heavyweight contenders for the crown.
Half of them have done time or are still guests of the federal government. Two are dead. Most of the rest have paid millions in fines to the FTC and/or in damages to private companies.
Which one truly deserves the title of King? Read on to find out.
Aliases: batch1, n1hustler4life
Current Status: Serving 30 Months in Federal Prison
Along with partner Todd Moeller, Vitale was part of the g00dfellas spam gang that specialized in pump-and-dump spam--artificially boosting a worthless company's stock price so insiders can dump the shares at a profit. In July 2008, Vitale pleaded guilty to violating the Federal CAN-SPAM Act by flooding 1.3 million AOL e-mail addresses with spam in the space of a week. Not your typical geek gone bad, Vitale's rap sheet boasted 22 prior convictions. He had a reputation for welshing on his partners--no wonder he got ratted out by a confidential informant working with the U.S. Secret Service. A plea bargain netted Vitale a 30-month sentence and a $180,000 fine. (Partner-in-crime Moeller got 27 months.)
At one point, the Brooklyn-born 28-year-old Vitale boasted about making more than $40,000 a week. Now he'll be making license plates at a federal penitentiary.
Spam Royalty Rank: Lord of License Plates
Alias: Gaven Stubberfield
Current Status: A Free Man
Using a stolen database of more than 90 million AOL customers, Jaynes and his sister Jessica DeGroot pumped out spam 24/7 from their home in Raleigh, North Carolina. They earned $400,000 to $750,000 a month hawking get-rich-quick schemes and "horsey porn" (don't ask). But in spamming AOL subscribers, he trespassed on their servers in Virginia, running afoul of the state's tough antispam statute.
In November 2004, Jaynes was found guilty of sending unsolicited bulk e-mail from falsified addresses and sentenced to nine years in prison. Last month, however, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the law was overly broad and restricted Jayne's First Amendment rights. The 34-year-old is free again to spread his special brand of equine love around the world.
Spam Royalty Rank: Viscount of Virginia
Alias: Fast Eddie
Current Status: Dead by His Own Hand
Few spammers' stories are more senseless or tragic than Davidson's. According to the FBI, Davidson operated a business called Power Promoters that flogged everything from perfumes and watches to penny stocks. In June 2007, Davidson was indicted for violating the CAN-SPAM Act. He plead guilty and was sentenced to 21 months in a minimum security prison in Colorado.
Last July Davidson simply walked out of the prison camp, and forced his wife to pick him up and drive him home. The 35-year-old fugitive then murdered his wife and his three-year-old daughter before turning the gun on himself. His 16-year-old daughter was shot but survived; an 8-month-old son was unharmed. Davidson had served just two months of his 21-month sentence.
Spam Royalty Rank: Dauphin of Despair
Aliases: Ric Melhalf, Steve Lister
Current Activity: Network Consultant
This 7th-grade dropout made his reputation pushing penis pills and bogus weight-loss cures. Waggoner is one of the rare spammers, or bulk e-mailers, to come out in public, speaking at the FTC's spam hearings in 2003 (He also calls antispam activists "terrorists.")
Though still named in the Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO) list of the Top 200 spammers, the 34-year-old Waggoner now bills himself as an expert on "network optimization, marketing trends, ad placement, and many other business needs" for affiliate marketers.
Spam Royalty Rank: Viceroy of Viagra
Robert Alan Soloway
Aliases: Badvertise500, Oregondude541, worldmailer541
Current Status: About to Serve 47 Months in Federal Prison
Soloway's Newport Internet Marketing Corporation started out in 1997 by selling bogus "opt in" e-mail lists to spammers. Then Soloway got into the spamming business himself, using botnets to spew billions of junk e-mails on behalf of his clients. In 2005, Microsoft sued Soloway for spoofing Hotmail and MSN addresses in his spam and won a $7.8 million judgment. That same year, Soloway was ordered to pay $10 million to a small Oklahoma-based ISP. In a message posted on a spammers forum, Soloway mocked these judgments:
"Neither I, nor my company will be for filing bankruptcy and Microsoft will not be collecting a single dime from me, nor has anyone ever collected a single dime from me from any lawsuit I have been in.... The Microsoft lawsuit was the most enjoyable lawsuit I have been in, in a long time. I met up with all of them and had fun through the entire process:)"
In May 2007 the FBI arrested the 28-year-old for a wide range of illegal activities. In March of this year Soloway pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud, e-mail fraud, and tax evasion (just 3 of the 40 counts he was charged with), and in July, he was sentenced to 47 months in the pokey.
Wonder how much fun he's having now?
Spam Royalty Rank: Baron of Botnets
Current Status: Pushing Daisies
He's been called "Russia's most despised Internet figure," and that's saying a lot. At his peak, Kushnir spewed 25 million e-mails a day to promote his own language tutoring businesses, overloading servers and causing many ISPs worldwide to blacklist any e-mails coming from the .ru domain--much to the chagrin of legitimate Russian Netizens who found it impossible to communicate with the rest of the world. He taunted Russian government officials and alienated employees by refusing to pay them.
When the 35-year-old Kushnir was bludgeoned to death in July 2005 --allegedly in "self defense" by three women he'd picked up in a bar in Moscow--the reaction in the Russian press was largely gleeful. No one has been charged in the crime.
Spam Royalty Rank: Count of the Cossacks
Current Status: Ring-Tone Merchant
Scott Richter has never claimed to be anything more than a "high-volume electronic marketer" and, unlike many of our contenders for the spam crown, he's never spent a day in a prison jumpsuit. Yet spammish activities have cost him big in other ways. In 2005, he agreed to pay Microsoft $7 million to settle a lawsuit over bulk e-mail sent by his company, OptinRealBig. The suit charged that OptinRealBig used fake subject lines and falsified addresses. He settled another suit brought by then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and agreed to abide by federal laws concerning bulk e-mail. He even got himself removed from Spamhaus.org's Register of Known Spamming Operations (ROKSO), considered the authoritative source on junk e-mailers.
But in January 2007 Richter's new company, Media Breakaway, was sued for--yes--sending deceptive and unsolicited commercial e-mails to MySpace users. Last June, an arbitration panel awarded MySpace $6 million in damages and attorneys' fees. The 41-year-old Richter also recently made headlines as one of the principals behind Ringaza.com, a site accused of charging customers $7 to $10 a month for "free" ring tones.
Spam Royalty Rank: Raja of Ring Tones
Christopher William Smith
Current Status: Serving 30 Years in Big Sandy Prison, Inez, Kentucky
As proprietor of the Xpress online pharmacy in Burnsville, Minnesota, the 28-year-old Smith built up a fortune estimated at $24 million by selling prescription drugs illegally across the Net. When FBI agents raided Smith's home in May 2005, they found a Lamborghini in the driveway and cereal boxes stuffed with more than $1 million in cash. But they didn't find Smith--he was already on the lam in the Dominican Republic. When he returned a few weeks later, he was arrested at the airport.
In November 2006, a federal jury convicted Smith on nine counts of drug running, wire fraud, money laundering, and racketeering. In a separate case, AOL sued Smith for sending billions of spam e-mails and won a judgment of $5.3 million. But what earned Smith that 30-year stretch was even more special: While awaiting trial in March 2006, Smith was caught on tape ordering a hit on a witness's children from a jail-house phone.
Spam Royalty Rank: Prince of Pills
Aliases: Sam Smith, William Window, Victor Allan
Current Status: Under Indictment
Whoever says crime doesn't pay hasn't seen Alan Ralsky's house. Despite a felony conviction for bank fraud in 1995, the 63-year-old has never done time. Instead, he lives in a palatial estate in West Bloomfield, Michigan, thanks to millions he's made from pumping out more than 70 million commercial e-mail messages a day.
When photos and the address of Ralsky's 8000-square-foot home were posted online in 2002, ticked-off Netizens signed him up for hundreds of catalogs and mailers, flooding Ralsky's home with junk mail. When his phone number was posted--but with one digit incorrect--a neighbor was flooded with venom-filled calls. The neighbor called the 63-year-old spammer "one of the most hated people on the Internet."
After the FBI raided his home in 2005 and confiscated all of his equipment, Ralsky allegedly began employing botnets for spamming. In January 2008, Ralsky was indicted along with 10 others by a federal grand jury on 41 counts of spamming and stock fraud. According to the DOJ, the case is still in discovery mode. He may yet trade his big house for the Big House.
Spam Royalty Rank: Marquis of Michigan
Updated 10/28/08 with correct photo of Sanford Wallace.
Current Status: Las Vegas Disc Jockey
Back when many would-be spam kings were still stealing candy from their playmates, Sanford Wallace was doing his best to make anyone with an e-mail account regret it. By 1996--long before "spam" meant anything other than luncheon meat to the vast majority of Americans--Wallace had already been banned from AOL, CompuServe, and Concentric Networks for distributing reams of unsolicited ads. He pioneered the use of tactics like using bogus return addresses, anonymous relaying, and browser hijacking.
Though officially "retired" from the spam biz in 1998, Wallace continued to inflict pain upon Netizens. In 2004 the FTC fined him more than $5 million for infecting computers with spyware, then selling users a $30 program to remove it. Last May, the FTC fined Wallace and partner Walter Rines $230 million for using phishing attacks to compromise MySpace accounts and distribute porn spam to users of all ages.
Brian McWilliams, author of the book Spam Kings (O'Reilly Media, 2004), says Wallace is the worst of a bad breed. "Many people who follow the spam scene thought Sanford had reformed," McWilliams notes in an e-mail. "But his recent phishing activities at MySpace and the spyware operation he had going just before that show that Sanford is the once and future spam king."
You get to be king by getting to the throne first and hanging on until somebody beheads you. That hasn't happened to Wallace--yet. According to press reports, the 40-year-old Wallace now works as a disc jockey in a club on the Las Vegas strip.
Spam Royalty Rank: Long Live the King
When not deleting spam, contributing editor Dan Tynan tends the Tynan on Tech blog .