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In the spammer's lair

Meet the "Cajun Spammer," a man who sends up to 100 million unsolicited e-mails a day. Learn his motivations and methods, and find out whether spam madness will ever subside.

When was the last time you bought herbal Viagra or got a home mortgage after opening an unsolicited e-mail?

Chances are you are like the vast majority of people who no longer glance at such e-mails before hitting the delete key. But given the escalating volume of spam, someone must be buying, or else the bulk mailers would have abandoned their trade.

In short, spammers still operate because their business model still works.

"As long as people buy the products, I'll keep sending mail," said Ron Scelson, who is dubbed the "Cajun Spammer." A self-described "spammer," he runs Scelson Online Marketing, which sends up to 100 million unsolicited e-mails a day. Scelson considers himself a legitimate businessman who is also a "spammer" because of the practices he is forced to use to dodge stringent antispam measures imposed by ISPs.

For example, Scelson has used offshore servers to send his mailings, though they can be up to five times more expensive than domestic systems. He tests all his e-mails against spam filters to make sure they can get through. He boasts that it usually takes him anywhere between 24 hours and three minutes to get spam through a new filtering system.

Scelson said he will spoof e-mail addresses if he has to. "It's a last resort for me, a backup system, but again, it can totally be done," he said during a recent webcast presented by messaging product vendor IntelliReach.

Often, spam is compared with junk mail. But there is a major difference. Each direct piece of direct mail costs the sender for printing and postage charges. Each additional piece increases the cost. For example, postcards cost 19 cents apiece, and there's little discount for sending more. A response rate of about a half percent for a bulk snail mail campaign would be typical. More than 2% would be great.

By contrast, a few purchases out of tens of millions of e-mails would be enough to cover the cost of a bulk e-mailing. "A small spammer may send out 10 million e-mails a day. If only 100 people buy, then their expenses are covered," said Vincent Schiavone, CEO of the ePrivacy Group.

Spam filters don't necessarily impact spammers. "It's an incremental cost for them to send 10 million e-mails rather than 5 million," Schiavone said.

Technology is on spammers' side because it's getting increasingly cheaper to send e-mail. Systems that act as spam cannons are available; they can send thousands of messages per hour.

Scelson tries to distance himself from other bulk e-mailers. For example, he only sends one mailing to an address per day. He also stays clear of pornography. Many of his clients have "no-name products" but want to become better known. "They don't have the funding they need to do regular advertisements," he said.

"And some of the clients I deal with are actually large, well-known companies, but because of the spamming issue" hide their identity, he said. Recent hot sellers for Scelson are a "toy teddy bear, which has been selling like hotcakes" and auto insurance.

Unlike other bulk e-mailers, Scelson works purely on a commission basis. He claims to get a 1% return ratio. "If I can't turn that for that client, I won't do that client," he said, estimating he gets between $4,000 to $5,000 per mailing.

Yet Scelson's days in the spamming trade may be numbered. "I've realized, with all the fighting I've done, how many bulk mailers do not have morals," he said.

He's thinking about creating his own antispam system that draws on his experience. "The difference is that mine will give the power to the user," Scelson said, noting that focusing on the user is "more effective than trying to control an entire network."

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