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Spam Kings

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Everybody with an email account gets junk mail. You know, the pitches for pills that will “enhance” or “enlarge” various body parts in anticipation of greater sexual gratification, college degrees that you haven’t really earned (but which you nonetheless deserve and will help you make more $$$$), and pornography by the boatload. Even the best spam-fighting email filters can’t seem to catch it all, and Bill Gates supposedly gets some four million spammed messages per day (although not necessarily directed at his personal email address).

For many people, that type of volume elevates spam from a mere irritant to a call to action: spam is, in the eyes of many, a modern-day plague upon the world of technological peace and harmony. It clogs networks and costs money in terms of lost productivity and bandwidth. Spammed messages constitute some sixty percent of today’s email traffic (indeed, it undoubtedly constitutes a similar percentage of the messages that hit my inbox); sad to say, I get more email from spammers than from my real-world friends and acquaintances. Thinking of spamers as just friendly, well-meaning “bulk marketers” would be a mistake, however. And it brings to mind the old saying: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Brian McWilliams’ new book, Spam Kings: The Real Story Behind the High-Rolling Hucksters Pushing Porn, Pills, and @*X?% Enlargements, explores the shadowy world of the bottom feeders lurking in the underbelly of the Internet. He introduces readers to Davis Wolfgang Hawke, a former neo-Nazi who at one time managed to gross some $600,000.00 selling herbal male “enhancement” products over the Internet (Hawke also sold a host of other products, from detective kits to information on creating fake identities to material on how others could successfully enter the “bulk marketing” business). Even after he shed his neo-Nazi skin, Hawke operated in a shady twilight world that allowed everything from his casual use of many aliases to his acquisition of a South American “prostitute” to be his sex toy (Hawke managed to get a young woman from Columbia to serve as his “live-in prostitute,” and as McWilliams’ writes, “Even when he was working at his computer, she was on duty”).

During the course of his research, McWilliams discovered that many spammers are somehow connected (perhaps in a six degrees of penis enlargement way); as a result, the book also exposes the reader to such characters as Sanford Wallace (called “Spamford” by his anti-spam foes), one of the original spam kings who contends that spam is protected by the First Amendment; Jason Vale, a former champion arm-wrestler and cancer survivor who insisted on bombarding people with email pitches for Laetrile as a cure for cancer, even despite a federal court order requiring him to desist; Alan Moore, otherwise known as “Dr. Fatburn” to purchasers of his diet pills; and a host of others. He also delves into the technical tricks of the trade, from computer viruses creating millions of “spam zombie” hosts to forged headers, open relays, harvesting tools, and more, providing excellent insight into how these bottom feeders find their prey.

Just as interesting are McWilliams’ revelations regarding ardent anti-spammers, the folks who have tracked spam back to the lair of those who spewed it, complained to ISPs, created blacklists of spammers, and more. And what is intriguing is the degree to which spammers and anti-spammers both detest one another and yet continue to speak to one another. McWilliams documents countless conversations between anti-spammers and their opponents; often, the spammers complain of being unfairly lumped in with the “real” bad guys in the business. And often spammers seemed willing to provide anti-spammers with information on other spammers, if only in the hope to get a break themselves.

And it’s also ultimately an unflattering indictment of our society in general. McWilliams notes that a number of prominent anti-spammers ended up working for their erstwhile foes (supposedly to help fight spam “from the inside”). Many anti-spammers bemoan the fact that once upon a time, “hackers” regarded spammers as a species of insect only worthy of destroying, whereas now many hackers have embraced spam (largely because they’ve seen the dollar signs). And that’s the real problem: that people want the crap peddled by spammers. The Internet lets them set up a little “brown bag” delivery system without ever leaving the comfort and sanctuary provided by their computer screen.

As McWilliams writes:

The Internet didn’t invent plan, brown-wrapper deliveries. But spam provides Internet users with new levels of anonymous access to the dodgiest of items. By double-clicking a hyperlink in a spam message, consumers can order cable descramblers, “free” government grants, and fake diplomas. Thanks to junk email, any consumer with an Internet connection and a credit card now has access to raunchy, and in some cases illegal, porn without the inconvenience of having to drive to the nearest adult bookstore. From the privacy of their homes or offices, spam recipients can get nonprescription access to controlled drugs via the web sites of fly-by-night apothecaries on servers in South America.

The thing about Spam Kings is this: it is fascinating to read about the bizarre characters behind so many of the bogus messages that appear in my email inbox, and it’s also intriguing to learn about the odd duality between spammers and those who fight it. But it is also rather depressing to realize that yet again, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” McWilliams’ Spam Kings is a good, entertaining book that ultimately may only confirm one basic principle, articulated by Davis Hawke like this: some people are stupid.

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About Bill Wallo

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