Spam King Living High In The Bayou

Running east from New Orleans, Interstate 10 slips alongside marshland dotted with weeping willows and billboards touting the "Swamp Tour" and "Gator Fest."

Thirty miles later, the highway arrives here in the bayou town of Slidell - a busy suburb of strip malls and subdivisions that bills itself as "Louisiana's Best-Kept Secret." It is also home to Ronnie Scelson, one of the biggest spammers in America.

Lunchtime finds the 29-year-old Scelson sitting cross-legged on the floor of his storefront TV repair shop while he munches on a takeout meal of boiled crawfish and spiced shrimp.

Clean-shaven and slightly pudgy, he's dressed in black jeans and a black short-sleeved jersey. Around his neck, he wears a gold necklace with a pendant of Scooby-Doo, his favorite cartoon character.

Scelson, a night owl by nature, arrived at the cinder-block shop only about an hour earlier. In the backroom, he nods toward two floor-to-ceiling racks of computer equipment - part of a system he uses to blast out e-mail advertising for Rolex watches, herbal supplements, insurance policies and more.

"With e-mail, I can guarantee you 80 million people," says Scelson, a self-taught computer repairman turned professional bulk e-mailer. "I can touch more people in a day's time than the Super Bowl can."

Ronnie Scelson - and scores of spammers like him - are the people who stuff the nation's computer in-boxes with junk e-mail.

Once merely an annoyance, junk e-mail is quickly reaching epidemic proportions in cyberspace. Billions of such messages regularly crisscross the Internet, pitching everything from herbal remedies to X-rated websites.

The growing flood of e-mail advertising has crashed Internet servers, clogged connections and cost business untold hours of wasted employee time. It has also forced millions of bleary-eyed Internet users to undertake the seemingly endless chore of clearing the electronic clutter from their in-box.

Attempts to stop the surge have met with little success. Meanwhile, with each new message, spam comes closer to threatening e-mail's future as an effective conduit for personal and business communication.

Just Another Vehicle

Legions of e-mail users may regard spam as the scourge of the Internet, but Scelson is unapologetic about sending it. To him, Internet e-mail is just another vehicle for advertising - like billboards, newspapers and the sides of buses.

"There's advertising everywhere you look. I don't care if you open a book or a magazine or walk down the street, it's everywhere," he says.

At one point last year, Scelson claims, he was sending more bulk e-mail than anyone in America: tens of millions of messages a day to his carefully nurtured list of working e-mail addresses.

More recently, he's been knocked off-line by anti-spam activists who succeeded in getting his Internet connections shut down - at least temporarily. But Opt-In Marketing Services, the bulk e-mail company Scelson founded, is fighting back in federal court with a $1 million lawsuit that could have far-reaching consequences for the future of e-mail advertising.

Scelson won't say precisely how much money he's made from bulk e-mailing, but he claims it's lucrative. Enough to support a five-bedroom house in Slidell, complete with a game room, a home office and an in-ground pool. Enough, too, for the canary-yellow 2001 Corvette he drives.

Not bad for a guy who says he only made it through the eighth grade and worked his way out of a trailer park by teaching himself about computers.

Hiding Their Identity

Most spammers go to great lengths to hide their identity and camouflage their activities. They often forge the return address on their e-mails. Some even bounce their e-mails off computers in Asia and Europe to disguise the point of origin.

Though also secretive about some of his dealings, Scelson is one of the few spammers willing to talk publicly about his bulk e-mail service, which starts, he says, at $1,000 a day.

"If I don't make a grand off of you, I won't touch you again. That's my bare minimum. If I can't get that, I'm not interested," he says. "And that's cheap. That's as low as it gets."

So how does it work? Scelson offers this example of a mailing campaign for a client selling travel packages:

Opt-In Marketing sends out 80 million e-mails offering vacation packages. For each person who clicks on the e-mail to visit the travel company's website, the company earns $1 - a fee roughly in line with industry norms.

More than 99.9 percent of the recipients may ignore that come-on. But if the e-mails go out by the millions, only a small fraction need respond to make the job pay off big.

"When I send that much mail out, I'll generate 30,000 to 40,000 travel leads in a week without a bit of problem," Scelson says.

What's more, he says, Opt-In typically gets a percentage of the take from people who actually sign up for a trip, so the company stands to earn thousands more if the package proves popular.

Other products, like cellphone boosters or herbal supplements, are less profitable. But if they bring in at least $1,000 per mailing, Scelson says, he'll send them out.

Scelson says he dabbled in electronics repair as a teen and even owned a cheap early-model computer. But it wasn't until he married and settled in a Slidell trailer park that he began studying how computers work.

Soon, Scelson got jobs in computer repair shops, including one that sent bulk e-mail on the side. Scelson says he found himself fascinated by the technical challenge both of sending junk e-mail and of evading the filters aimed at blocking it.

It was the same challenge that got him interested in computers, the same challenge that moved him to restore a once-rusting step van now parked in his driveway: Can he figure out how to make it work?

Scelson's other big motivator is the memory of his former home in the trailer park. He still occasionally passes the moss-covered trailer en route to his spacious home, where he lives with his wife and three young children. The contrast between then and now gives him a regular and vivid reminder of how far bulk e-mail has allowed him to come.

"We started literally with nothing," Scelson says, having proudly conducted a tour of his new house with stops at the large-screen TV and pool table. "So you can get an idea how much of a difference e-mailing can make for somebody."

A Mouse-Click Away

Last April, before Opt-In's connections were cut, Scelson demonstrated how easy it is to process the mail from his home office, which is decorated with black lights and Scooby-Doo posters.

With a mouse-click, he launched his latest e-mailing software, which appears on the flat-screen monitor perched on his desk. The program allows him to control every aspect of the outgoing e-mail - including masking the sender, randomly changing the subject line or disguising the point of origin.

Just one more click and the e-mail floodgates open. In six minutes, the program has fired off half a million e-mail messages and continues cranking them out nonstop.

Scelson, who designed the software, says it will penetrate virtually any system designed to stop ads from reaching the intended mailbox.

"If it accepts e-mail, there's a way in," he says. "And this is designed to get around anything."

The equipment needed to send out massive volumes of e-mail is relatively modest by business standards: a few computers, an Internet connection and some software to manage the mailings and databases.

Scelson keeps his gear in several places. He's got the two racks of equipment in the back of his TV repair shop, a 10-minute drive from his house. He's got even more equipment stored in a New Orleans skyscraper, which has better access to high-speed Internet connections.

Then there's his home, which not only holds another set of computer equipment, but also allows him to control the New Orleans site remotely. That way he can work late into the night without having to leave the house.

The most critical part of the system is the Internet connection. Dial-up modems won't do for mass e-mailings; ultra-high-speed lines are needed to pump millions of e-mails onto the Internet.

Not only are such connections expensive - costing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a month - they also can be difficult to hang onto for bulk e-mailers. Anti-spam activists often succeed in getting spammers' connections cut off by complaining to the company that provides the connection. Scelson has lost numerous connections that way, costing his operation time and money.

Pulling The Plug

It happened again last month, not long after Scelson brought in some new partners to help finance and manage Opt-In Marketing.

At the time, Opt-In Marketing had just started using new connections to feed millions of e-mail advertisements onto the Internet. Complaints rolled in. Anti-spam organizations began adding the connections to their lists of spam sources. Some Internet providers began refusing e-mail that originated there.

Soon thereafter, Opt-In's connections were pulled. But instead of seeking yet another provider, the company counterattacked. Opt-In sued Internet providers Qwest Communications and Covista, along with three anti-spam organizations, demanding that its Internet access be restored.

Scelson, who remains the head of technology and engineering at Opt-In, says he's confident of victory in the courts. But until the matter is resolved, he says, his company is without the means to distribute its advertising.

The True Spam

Scelson sees a big difference between what he does - which he considers proper e-mail marketing - and indiscriminate, anonymous e-mail advertising - which he regards as true spam. Such distinctions, however, are likely to be lost on Internet users whose e-mail boxes are jammed with advertising.

Nevertheless, Scelson says he adheres to a set of principles that he believes legitimizes his use of Internet e-mail to distribute advertising.

For one, Scelson says, Opt-In Marketing concentrates on sending e-mail to people with accounts at large, consumer-oriented services such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and America Online and tries to avoid e-mail addresses at businesses.

For another, he says, all e-mails from Opt-In Marketing include a way for recipients to get their address removed from the company's database. Some mailers are suspected of using this as a technique to identify working addresses, but Scelson claims he honors removal requests.

In any case, he says, few people ever ask to have their names removed from the mailing list - far fewer than those who place orders for the advertised goods and services.

"If they don't want it, they throw it in the trash," he says.

Scelson also claims he won't send out ads for pornography until the operators of those websites tone down their ads. At the same time, though, Scelson objects to the idea that e-mail ads for other products are the same as porn spam.

"I can see there being laws against [porn e-mail] and people trying to stop this. But if I'm sending you out a term-life insurance quote, there's nothing unusual about this for you to be having a fit."

Fighting Back

Bulk e-mailers generally avoid anti-spam groups as much as possible. But Scelson has joined in the debate over unsolicited commercial e-mail. "I've gone into newsgroups and fought to prove that spam can be done right," Scelson says.

A look through the Internet message groups dedicated to spam discussions offers a glimpse at the animosity between the two sides.

In online salvos, Scelson has called anti-spammers "self-appointed dictators" and "cyber-Nazis." His critics have fired back equally colorful insults, calling Scelson "Ronnie the Rodent" and describing him as a "scamming thief," a "liar," a "cretin," a "terrorist sunuvabitch" and "100% true-blue opportunistic spamming scum."

Scelson knows that many dislike his way of making a living, but he's determined to persist.

"As far as the anti-spam organizations, they just basically want to get rid of e-mail [advertising] altogether. ... If they didn't ask for it, they don't want it. And it's not that simple of a business."