• United States
IDG Enterprise Consulting Director

You think you’ve got spam problems…

Jul 25, 20036 mins
Data CenterMalwareMessaging Apps

Babies don’t need a vacation but I still see them at the beach. I’ll go over to them and say, ‘What are you doing here? You’ve never worked a day in your life!’Steven Wright

Dear Vorticians,

While some would argue about whether I’ve ever put in an honest day’s work, I’ll be on vacation the next two weeks and your e-mail inbox will be untroubled by my missives.

Speaking of troubled inboxes, my Network World colleagues and I recently spent about a month without the services of a corporate e-mail filter and were simply astounded by the assault on our messaging system. Every morning, I was treated to the sight of literally hundreds of come-ons for products ranging from the most vile porn sites to insurance, travel and financial services. Cleaning up the daily dumping of electronic drivel was a real pain in, well, the one part of my body someone was not encouraging me to enlarge.

Why did we take this masochistic tack? Our older spam filter couldn’t keep up with the growing load, so our IT folks installed a new product that employees simply didn’t like. It imposed unacceptable constraints on the use of e-mail – a vital tool anywhere, but particularly in a newsroom – so the product (which shall go unnamed) was yanked out and the IT team began searching for a replacement. Said replacement, from SurfControl, is now in place and has already dramatically reduced the flow of junk mail.

Talk about perfect timing. During the filter-free month, I hosted a discussion with one of the country’s top spammers in a Webcast sponsored by Intellireach, which also sells anti-spam technology. The idea was to give IT executives the opportunity to hear directly from the enemy: how he works, how he gets around your roadblocks and what makes him tick. You can hear the full Webcast at> and I encourage you to do so. It’s scary and you should understand what we’re all up against, and why the future value of e-mail is in question.

My interviewee was Ronald Scelson, better known as the Cajun Spammer. Scelson Online Marketing operates out of a Louisiana suburb and claims to be able to send up to 180 million e-mail messages for clients in a single day. Don’t try to find – the site was working when I prepped for the interview, but either Scelson or an ISP has since shut it down. His life is an ongoing game of “cat and mouse,” shifting from one ISP to another and among vast arrays of IP addresses. The anti-spam warriors loathe Scelson and have published information about his personal life and whereabouts – leading to death threats and other unpleasantries, he claims.

Scelson’s clients range from unknown firms marketing teddy bears to major insurance companies pitching low-cost auto policies. He claims some of the bigger companies set up subsidiaries to mask their identities and protect them from any negative repercussions. Clients pay him a fee for each response they receive – say, a buck – and some mailings can generate tens of thousands of responses. A small percentage on nearly 200 million messages, but a nice return for him. (Who’s responding to this stuff anyway? How do we make them stop?)

If Scelson’s name sounds familiar, you may have come across him in recent news reports about the Federal Trade Commission’s hearings on spam control. He is unapologetic. He believes he and his clients have an absolute right to advertise via e-mail – advertising is everywhere, he says – and ISPs have no right to try to stop him. Only you and I, the recipients of his e-mail blasts, have the right to tell him to stop. In fact, he claims the big ISPs are big hypocrites about spam – AOL and MSN, for example. They spam their own customers and help big advertisers spam them as well, all while claiming to be concerned about the spam problem and actively fighting it.

Scelson says he’s a man of honor. He won’t do more than one mass mailing a day. He really does unsubscribes, and he won’t do porn.

But Scelson also makes clear that he will do anything to get past your blocking efforts or those of the ISPs and blacklists. His rationale: the ISPs would try to block him even if he was following best practices for e-mail marketing, so he’s within his rights to do whatever it takes to get his messages out.

Scelson uses the latest mass-mailing technologies – for example, tools that make it appear that messages are coming from many, many different IP addresses. And, he brings all the anti-spam technologies in-house and quickly figures out how to get around their approaches to blocking spam. He has reverse-engineered the approaches used by the likes of AOL and MSN and knows how to get around them. In fact, his claim is simple: If you have an e-mail address, he can find a way to get to you.

The Cajun Spammer makes clear in the Webcast why blacklists can’t stop him and, perhaps most depressing, why no legislation can stop him or his ilk. (There are currently at least five anti-spam bills pending before Congress.) This is a global network, baby, and there are plenty of countries, ISPs and hosters happy to harbor him and take his money. In fact, he does much of his mailing from offshore these days.

During the Webcast, Scelson did offer some advice for maximizing the effectiveness of spam control tools and even claimed that he’s going to shift focus and offer his own protection technology. But perhaps the only optimistic message that came out during the Webcast is that the flood of spam is hurting even the spammers, dropping their response rates and threatening their businesses.

Ironically, some of you may not receive this VORTEX Digest because your own filters will key in on the word ‘spam’ or something else related to Scelson’s business. But if you do, please let me know that you got it (an informal poll) and let me know what you think the answer is to the spam problem. As always, you can reach me at

Bye for now. I’ll be thinking about you.