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Consumer Reports

There are 10 million reasons why you hate this man | (KRT) SHREVEPORT, La. Several months ago, Robert "Bubba" Catts received a small box in the mail that he says was filled with excrement. Human or animal, he couldn't tell which. Another time an envelope arrived filled with what Catts says was "some kind of crusty stuff." There have been hundreds of similarly anonymous letters, chastising him, in often threatening terms, for polluting the world's in-boxes with his unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Such are the occupational hazards of a big-time spammer.

"The letters will say things like, `You GD idiot. Why are you sending me this crap? I don't want it,'" Catts says in his home near Shreveport. "People are spending all this time to do this. Why don't they just take the two seconds and hit the delete button?"

Yet Catts, though annoyed by the abuse, is undeterred. Money is the reason. A bulk e-mail marketer since 1998, the former car salesman and professional bull rider has transformed a room of his modest house into an impressive command center worthy of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There, 16 computers operate around the clock, employing special software to spew up to 10 million e-mail advertisements a day around the globe.

A small number of people respond to that advertising bombardment, an average of 50 each day, Catts says. But multiply that 50 by the $39.99 Catts charges for his product - software that monitors Internet usage - and it works out to more than $700,000 a year, minus the $40,000 or so he spends annually on software and for address lists. For that kind of cash, a person can put up with a box or two of excrement.

"I know what it's like to want. I'll never be that way again," says Catts, 46, a short, barrel-chested man who also has worked construction and driven a UPS truck. "I'm trying to make a living, just like the big (Internet) domains are. If (my product) wasn't selling, I wouldn't be doing this. I'm no different than (companies like I'm just a small version of them. A mom-and-pop version.

"There's no snake oil. No scams. I'm not doing anything illegal. I'm not trying to hide. I never have since day one."

It is that openness that distinguishes Catts from many of his spamming brethren, who, authorities say, are often con artists operating behind fake e-mail addresses and bogus Web sites. These spammers also seek to avoid angry reactions like those Catts has incurred, rage that grows with the proliferation of junk e-mail that makes up about half of all e-mail today, according to some estimates.

Yet there are honest, legitimate spammers, Catts says, and he is one of them. He does not spam pornography, he pays his taxes and honors customers' requests to be removed from his mailing lists. Which, Catts says, is why he invited a reporter and photographer to observe his operation and hear one spammer's side of an increasingly contentious issue.

"Most of my (spammer) friends think I'm crazy," he says.

Particularly given the attacks against spam being mounted on several fronts. This month, America Online Inc. filed federal lawsuits against 12 individuals whom AOL accused of generating a billion pieces of spam, thereby inspiring 8 million complaints from customers of the giant Internet service provider. The unsolicited messages included pornography, body-enhancement offers and diet and financial schemes. The AOL lawsuits singled out only two of the spammers by name. The identities of the others remain unknown.

On another front, legislation introduced this month in the U.S. Senate would prohibit unsolicited e-mail that contained deceptive sender information and subject lines. (Ads with deceptive return addresses generally request customers to click on a link to a Web site, where methods of payment are displayed.) Under the law, spam would be required to have a functioning return address and an "opt-out" line by which customers could insist on being removed from the spammer's mailing list. Violations of the law would carry penalties of up to one year in jail and fines of up to $10 for every illegal piece of spam.

"Just as quickly as the use of e-mail has spread, its usefulness could dwindle - buried under an avalanche of `get rich quick,' `lose weight fast,' and pornographic marketing pitches," said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a sponsor of the bill.

And today in Washington, the Federal Trade Commission will host a three-day conference on unsolicited e-mail. FTC officials say that in addition to being a nuisance, a large percentage of spam is fraudulent. The onslaught of spam also forces Internet service providers to increase capacities at a cost of millions of dollars.

For the first time, spammers and anti-spam vigilantes, state and federal officials, Internet service providers and those who attempt to devise spam-fighting technology will come together to discuss what even some spammers say is a blight.

"I don't disagree that the system is broken," says one man, who identified himself only as a spammer when calling the Star-Telegram. "It's going to get to a point where all you do all day long is delete. The way it is right now sucks for me. It sucks for everybody. You've got anarchy in electronic communication and it needs to be fixed."

Federal Trade Commission lawyer Brian Huseman says much of the discussion at the forum will concern technological solutions "that can prohibit the sending of e-mail in bulk or impose costs on the sender."

But Vincent Schiavone, CEO of ePrivacy Group, a Philadelphia company that designs spam-fighting systems, says technology has its limits in the fight against spam.

"A number of folks are looking to come together and solve this problem because the level of pain is so high," says Schiavone, who will participate in the FTC forum. "It's high for the consumer, the ISPs and the marketers themselves. What is really needed is an industry-wide standard to differentiate good e-mail (coming from legitimate marketers) from (fraudulent e-mail).

"I hope the FTC event is a watershed event where we'll all look back and say, `This is where the tide turned,' " Schiavone says. "The hardest part is cooperation."

Bubba Catts says he will be among those who carefully monitor this week's events in Washington.

"We've got people from our side who are going to attend," he says, coyly. "There need to be guidelines. I have no problem with that as long as it's done ethically."

The one-story home with tan stucco walls and brown trim sits well off the country road, shaded by the abundant trees of northwest Louisiana. Two American flags flap stiffly in the spring breeze. A new white sport utility vehicle is parked in the garage of the place where Bubba Catts answers the front door, then leads a visitor into a sunny room where computer monitors are stacked atop each other, emitting a steady hum.

Several gold rings adorn Catts' fingers, and gold bracelets dangle from his wrists, but otherwise he is dressed casually in a T-shirt, black jeans and tennis shoes. He is a frenetic man who speaks in bursts, rushing around his command center monitoring his computer screens, making sure none of the computers is inadvertently kicked off-line. That could mean thousands of e-mail advertisements would remain unsent. In one minute, one computer alone sends nearly 700 messages, more than 90,000 in little more than an hour.

While Catts works, his young wife, Melody, and his 9-month-old daughter, Cheyene, appear at the room's entrance.

"Come to Daddy," Catts says, holding out his arms toward the toddler with curly dark hair, sweeping the girl into his arms when she waddles toward him.

Catts points to a laminated newspaper obituary for his father, Robert Catts Sr., who was a captain in the Shreveport Police Department. Catts says he has bought cars for each of his brothers and sisters with his spamming proceeds, and contributes 10 percent of his income to his Assemblies of God church.

"I know what kind of person I am," he says. "My family and friends know. I've got friends who are doctors. And I don't take what I have for granted. I thank God every day for what I have. It might not be here tomorrow."

Until 1997, he says, Catts scarcely knew how to turn on a computer. He was struggling to make ends meets as a Nissan salesman when he came across a multi-level marketing scheme on one of his first visits to the Internet. Convinced that it was a quick way to money, Catts paid $400 for computer software that gave him a list of several hundred e-mail addresses and the technology to deliver messages to them almost at once. Threatening letters from attorneys general in two Northeastern states caused Catts to abandon the scheme, he says, but by then the potential profits of bulk e-mail were clear.

He went on to sell cigars, condos, cruise trips, mortgages, auto warranties and, for a few months when the product first hit the market, Viagra.

"It was OK," Catts says. "It just wasn't special. I didn't make as much money as I thought I would."

In the end, Catts would come up with his own spam windfall. Two years ago, inspired by the desire to keep tabs on his teenage daughter, he hired a computer programmer in Bangladesh to design what eventually became TattleTale, Catts' Internet monitoring software. Catts says the product is typically purchased by parents, or by men and women who want to spy on their spouses.

As the profits from TattleTale rolled in, Catts invested in more computers. He purchased larger lists of addresses from Internet entrepreneurs who use special software, sometimes known as spiders, to "harvest" e-mail addresses from the Internet. Catts continued investing in the latest technology to outwit spam filters employed by Internet service providers.

He also came to the attention of, an anti-spam group based in Britain. Catts is now among 180 of the world's largest spammers listed on the ROKSO list (Registry of Known Spam Operators). Those spammers, says Spamhaus founder Steve Linford, account for 90 percent of all unsolicited e-mail now sent.

"These are 180 hardcore individuals," Linford says. "We call them professional spammers, but many of them have criminal records for all kinds of stuff. It takes a certain type of person. You pretty much need to be a lowlife. Sending unsolicited bulk e-mail isn't an ethical thing to do. All of the people who receive this stuff are complaining because there's no way to stop it."

Among the Spamhaus services is a block list of known spammers that more than 100 million e-mail users subscribe to, Linford says. After identifying a spammer, Spamhaus typically contacts the bulk marketer's Internet service provider, which often responds by terminating the spammer's access.

Linford describes Bubba Catts as a "low-end spammer" on the Spamhaus ROKSO list. While Catts sends up to 10 million pieces of spam a day, top spammers might send 50 million, Linford says.

"But if he's openly telling you that he's doing 10 million a day, and sees nothing wrong with 10 million people having to receive his stuff, I don't know how you profile a guy like that," Linford says.

For his part, Catts calls groups like Spamhaus "Net Nazis" and "vigilantes." Catts says he's been threatened by the anti-spammers, who once surreptitiously recorded his telephone calls and posted the taped conversations on the Internet. More than 70 times in the past six years, he says, anti-spammer complaints have resulted in Catts' being terminated from his Internet service providers. He is now forced to find Internet access overseas.

"They use worse tactics than we do," Catts says of the anti-spammers. "Anti-spammers think they're God. They do more harm than any porn spammer. The anti-spammers attack our Web sites, send false information to our Web providers. Because of them, I'm on my fourth (Internet) provider in six months."

His struggles scarcely end there. Catts and other spammers engage in a daily cat-and-mouse game against the spam filters of the Internet service providers. Catts owns dozens of e-mail addresses, and sends out dozens of different advertisements with multiple subject lines to provide the variety necessary to short-circuit the filters. When sales are down, Catts says, he knows he has a problem.

"I've had as many as 80 to 90 sales a day," he says. "Most of the time it's around 50. If it gets down to, say, 20, I'm having a bad day. If it gets down to 20, I know I'm being filtered."

Then begins a laborious trouble-shooting process. Catts starts by sending ads to his own e-mail addresses to determine which are not getting through, then begins to tinker with the wording of his affected ads and their subject lines snared by the filters. Catts says he will not resort to deceptive subject lines, such as the terms "Hey" or "Re:" or "Fwd." But he will rewrite the lines until they slip through the filters.

"That's where the tedious work comes in," he says. "You have to reconfigure for the filters over and over again. I know people will say, `You spam bag. You shouldn't reconfigure.' But all it comes down to is money. AOL and MSN don't want you selling in their domains. Those are their customers. They want a monopoly."

And monopolies, he says, are not part of the American dream. The American dream is about an old cowboy like himself getting rich without breaking the law. So what if a few people get mad enough to send nasty stuff to him through the mail.

"I sold cars for five years," Catts says, smiling. "I'm used to it."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services