By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
In January, one piece of paper changed James McCalla's life.
A muscular, six-foot Haitian-American, the 26-year-old McCalla went out to get the mail at his suburban home in Pembroke Pines. He found an official letter from the federal courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. It was a civil judgment.
"$11,200,000,000," the document read.
"I let out a big sigh and just stared at the paper," McCalla says. "Billion, 11.2 billion dollars. I couldn't believe it. Then I started to laugh. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me. '"
The judgment against McCalla was record-setting. His is the largest civil judgment ever awarded against a spammer the people who make their fortunes by sending millions of unsolicited commercial e-mails across the Internet every day. In McCalla's case, a federal judge ruled that he had sent 280 million e-mails to one Internet service provider alone. In addition to handing down the hefty penalty, the judge barred McCalla from using the Internet for three years.
McCalla's case quickly made news across the Internet, sparking venomous attacks on bulletin boards and in blogs. He's become one of the most reviled men on the Internet.
Reads one anonymous message-board posting: "I hope there is enough reciprocity between states that [the lawyers] can reach to wherever this jerk lives, get a summary judgment that will grab everything down to the roll of toilet paper in the bathroom, and sell it to the highest bidder on the front steps of the local courthouse... Leave him with one change of clothes to go look for honest work in. On foot."
But as spammer cases go, McCalla's is unusual even without the 11-figure judgment. Although the sky-high penalty suggests that McCalla is among the most prolific spammers on the Internet, the evidence does not. The London-based Spamhaus Project, which claims 200 spammers are responsible for 80 percent of the Internet's junk e-mail, has no record of McCalla or his company, JMC Internet Marketing. In fact, McCalla has never been listed in Spamhaus' Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO), which includes such well-known spammers as Detroit's Alan Ralsky and South Florida's very own Eddy Marin, who dealt cocaine in South Florida before he started to send millions of e-mails from his Boca Raton office.
"I'm the world's biggest spammer, but I'm not even on the list of the world's spammers," McCalla says. "How's that possible?"
What's more, in a get-rich-quick industry that has turned hucksters into magnates, McCalla has no signs of wealth: He drives a 1998 Honda Accord, the only asset he claims to have. Records show that McCalla has never owned property in Florida, and he claims he does not own real estate in other states or countries.
"Obviously, to some degree, it's weird that someone like McCalla can send out hundreds of millions of messages without Spamhaus noticing," says John C. Mozena, vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE). "But that's how much spam is out there. Two hundred and eighty million e-mails? There's so much spam out there today, that's just background noise."
McCalla says he has an explanation for why spam watchdogs didn't notice him before the lawsuit: He's an innocent man who's wrongly been labeled a menace. "I was guilty until proven innocent," he says. Claiming not to have enough money to hire an attorney, McCalla represented himself in the federal lawsuit, which was filed by a small, Iowa-based Internet service provider called CIS. Being labeled a spammer has the same effect as being labeled a child molester or a rapist, McCalla says.
"Once you're called that, everyone believes it's true," says McCalla, who would not be photographed for this article for fear of harassment. "But I'm not a spammer. I don't even know how to send out millions of e-mails."
Spam experts doubt that McCalla's is a case of mistaken identity. "It's so difficult to track a spammer down in the first place, the possibility of being mistakenly identified throughout the legal process is so remote as to be impossible," Mozena says. "I've never seen anyone who has been able to raise doubt to a prosecutor or a jury."
The United States is not only the largest target of spam; it is also the largest producer. Despite the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which the federal government enacted in an attempt to curb spam by imposing regulations, 23.1 percent of the world's spam is sent from Internet servers in the United States, according to a recent report by Sophos, a network security firm.
And it's no coincidence that McCalla and dozens of other alleged spammers live in South Florida. The Sunshine State is widely considered the world capital of spam. Of the top ten spammers listed on ROKSO, three are in Florida: Amadeo Belmonte of Data One Marketing, Scott Ramaglia of Ameritech Advertising, and Andrew Chandler of Chat Radio.
"Spammers are hedonists," says Brian McWilliams, a New Hampshire-based business and technology journalist and author of the book Spam Kings. "They go where there's sun, sand, and bikinis. You'd think they'd go somewhere remote, somewhere where they could be off the grid, so to speak. But I've never been able to find any spammers in Montana or Alaska. Most live in your wonderful state."