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Spam Nation

It's a [bad] part of our everyday lives. Who's behind this stuff?

For lunch, Scott Richter ordered ham--a meat of uncomplicated origins, as opposed to Hormel's mysterious jumble. His choice seems somehow appropriate for a person who says he's a legitimate bulk E-mail marketer, rather than a spammer.

It's understandable that he wants to make such a distinction. With unwanted E-mail accounting for anywhere from 25% to 60% of all messages, the court of public opinion has already passed judgment on mass E-mailers.

Scott Richter -- Photo by Ken Schles

E-mail marketer Richter says his company receives threatening messages.

Photo of Scott Richter by Ken Schles
"We get people who send us a lot of postal junk mail, send us dirty letters, call us up and cuss us out," Richter says. "And a lot of people who do those things to us aren't even people who've had mail from us. Every time somebody writes a story on us, I'll get these E-mails, 'Don't ever spam me, you dirty bleep bleep,' ... and they're not even on our list."

A California E-mail marketer of printer supplies, who asked not to be identified, tells of having to take the company's 800-number fax out of his messages because of the protest response. "When we had the fax number in there, they would tie up the fax for three or four days at a time," he says.

Frontier justice? Perhaps. Now the legitimate lawmakers are moving in on spam.

A California judge on Oct. 24 imposed a $2 million fine on PW Marketing LLC and its owners, Paul Willis and Claudia Griffin, for sending unsolicited bulk E-mail and other offenses such as disguising the origin of the messages. The pair was charged with sending messages with misleading subject lines, including "Has She Contacted You Yet" on E-mail pitching a how-to book for getting into the bulk E-mail business. This is the first such penalty under the state's anti-spam law, which will be strengthened Jan. 1 with tougher penalties.

The feds also are taking aim. The U.S. Senate last month voted 97-0 for an anti-spam bill known as the Can-Spam Act of 2003. Such uncharacteristic unanimity reflects popular discontent with spam, which displeases 70% of E-mail users, according to an October survey by the nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project.

But understanding the business of people like Richter and his less-savory brethren suggests the E-mail tide won't be stemmed soon.

If you took Richter out of his black short-sleeve polo shirt and squeezed him into a suit, you might see a passing resemblance to Rush Limbaugh, one of the few people as polarizing as senders of bulk E-mail. Richter insists that anyone who gets E-mail from his company, LLC, has asked for it and can easily opt out. There's no doubt his company sends a lot of mail: several hundred million messages a day for 122 clients.

What distinguishes Richter's business from that of a spammer, he says, "is you can find us. We have a phone number. We're a business. We're a company. We're not hidden in a basement, hidden underground."

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