The $11 Billion Man

Meet the world's most castigated spammer — a South Florida man who says he's an innocent victim.

In fact, there's such a concentration of bulk e-mailers on our sunny peninsula that those in the business of combating spam watched to see how recent hurricanes in Florida affected worldwide spam traffic. After Hurricane Wilma knocked out power to most of South Florida, the amount of spam on the Internet took a noticeable dip, observers say.

The man largely responsible for building the spammer infrastructure in South Florida, McWilliams claims, is Eddy Marin, who at one point was believed to be pumping out 250 million e-mails per day from his Boca Raton office. A Cuban-born South Floridian, Marin is almost a cliché in the notoriously seedy world of spam: He's a convicted felon who moved to spam only after trying his hand at drugs and Internet pornography. He's had a penchant for fast-buck industries.

In the early '80s, during South Florida's cocaine halcyon days, Marin dealt blow. The Broward Sheriff's Office arrested him in August 1984 with 132 grams of cocaine. He served eight months in prison. After his release, Marin expanded his drug enterprise, buying cocaine cheap in Miami and reselling it in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Jacksonville, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Alabama, and Canada. To wash the money, Marin invested the drug proceeds in a local nightclub and limousine service, court records show. Authorities quickly caught on, and in 1985, Marin pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute five kilos or more of cocaine and received 57 months in prison, plus five years of probation. Also implicated in the case was John Holmes, a former Broward County judge who represented drug dealers, including Marin, after stepping down from the bench (see "Spam Sandwich," December 4, 2003).

In 2000, after his release from prison, Marin operated a company called Opt-In Services, which employed women to dance in front of web cams for Internet users paying $6 per minute. During the early days of Internet pornography, Marin did well. But as competition became fiercer, Marin was forced out.

He moved to another burgeoning industry that takes its tongue-in-cheek name from a 1970 Monty Python skit in which café patrons' conversation is overwhelmed by men singing "Spam, spam, spam, spam. Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!" The implication: Unwanted bulk e-mail drowns out conversation on the Internet.

The first known case of spam came in 1978, when a marketing representative for an L.A. company called DEC sent out a bulk message about a new computer system to message boards on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a precursor to the Internet.

Spam has since evolved into the familiar pitches for Viagra and Cialis, penis-enlargement products, and suspiciously low mortgage rates that we endure today. And that's how Marin has been making his money in South Florida as aspiring bulk e-mailers followed him to the Sunshine State.

"He helped Florida develop into a center for spammers," McWilliams says. "Having a guy like him there created a satellite of companies — Internet service providers or web hosting companies that know what spammers want and need."

Although most people assiduously avoid responding to spam, some people do — and there's a ton of money to be made in the business. Although exact figures are impossible to obtain — the spam industry is one of the few in the world that operates entirely in the dark — the wealth accumulated by spammers who have been nabbed suggests that fortunes can be made in a hurry.

Alan Ralsky, considered the world's top spammer, lives in a lavish, 8,000-square-foot house in suburban Detroit. Despite having settled a lawsuit with Verizon Internet Services for an undisclosed amount, Ralsky continues to spam using e-mail servers overseas. In a defiant interview with the Detroit Free Press in 2002, Ralsky — who in 1992 served 50 days in jail for selling unregistered securities — claimed to charge as much as $22,000 for a single spam blast to the 250 million e-mail addresses in his database.

America Online, fed up with the abundant riches obtained by spammers who flood the company's servers, began to flaunt its legal victories against bulk e-mailers. In March 2004, AOL offered a sweepstakes to Internet users for a 2002 Porsche Boxster convertible that was seized from a spammer as a result of a civil action filed in Virginia, the state where AOL's servers are located and the state that has tough anti-spam legislation on the books known casually as the "AOL law."

In August 2005, AOL seized the assets of another spammer and offered yet another sweepstakes. As a result of a settlement with spammer Brad Bournival, AOL gave away a Hummer, $20,000 in gold bars, and $65,000 in cash — all obtained by Bournival using spam proceeds before he had even turned 21 years old.

Internet service providers hope well-publicized cases like these — plus million- and billion-dollar civil judgments against spammers — will dissuade others from getting into the business. But McWilliams worries that they are actually having the opposite effect.

"Spammers see money being made in this marketplace, and when one spammer is felled by a big lawsuit, others step up or new guys get into the business," he says. "In fact, I think there are times when these lawsuits and stunts such as the AOL sweepstakes backfire because word gets out about how much money is to be made in this business.

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