Andy Markley, a graphic designer in Sacramento, California, was finishing some work on Saturday, August 30. The Labor Day weekend upon him, Markley was ready to relax.
But before leaving his office, he decided to check his e-mail one last time. To his surprise, he found hundreds of bounced-back messages flooding his inbox. And that wasn't all. Between those e-mails were messages from individual Internet users who were irate that Markley had apparently sent junk e-mail advertising an online store selling prescription drugs. "Shop Online and Save," the message read. "Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Viagra, Meridia, Xenical, Valtrex."
Markley knew he hadn't sent the e-mail ad. But the incensed recipients of the pitch message insisted he had, because the from address in the drug pitch -- "art101.com" -- used a random username from Markley's own domain. Angered that he had become a victim of online identity theft, the graphic designer decided to do some detective work. All e-mails contain what are called "headers," which act as a sort of signature that a computer sending out e-mail places on messages as they're sent. While "from" addresses can be forged, as was the case with the junk e-mail Markley was receiving in bounced-back messages, the originating mail server's Internet protocol (IP) address generally cannot be.
The IP address on Markley's e-mails traced back to a Boca Raton company called Internet America LLC. According to the Spamhaus Project, a London-based organization considered the leading authority on junk e-mail and its senders, Internet America is among the companies allegedly linked to Eddy Marin, a 41-year-old Cuban-born South Floridian believed to pump out 250 million e-mails per day. Marin, who is not listed on state records for Internet America LLC, has a criminal past that illustrates the shady underbelly of unsolicited commercial e-mail, better known as spam. It's an intrusive but lucrative industry that Congress moved toward curbing with last week's passage of the Can Spam Act. The bill, which had already passed the House, was approved unanimously by the Senate on November 25. The House will vote to make some minor modifications in the bill's language before sending it on to President Bush, who is expected to sign it later this month. The new law, which awaits executive approval, includes penalties of up to five years in prison for the worst spam offenses. For most Internet users, the law can't come soon enough. According to an October study by the Pew Internet & Life Project, 70 percent of surveyed Internet users said spam has made their online experience unpleasant or annoying.
That's thanks partly to Boca Raton's Marin, whose junk e-mail advertises, among other things, sexual remedies and mail-order brides. He is one of about 40 spammers in Boca Raton who, according to Spamhaus, have helped to bestow the Palm Beach County city with a reputation as the Spam Capital of the World. "Florida is a well-known haven for spammers," says junk e-mail fighter Adam Brower.
Before Marin could make his money in Boca's junk e-mail industry, however, he relied on another lucrative enterprise: cocaine. His first bust dates back to December 6, 1983, when Broward Sheriff's Deputy Joe Kessling observed Marin change traffic lanes without signaling. The deputy pulled him over. "When the defendant exited the vehicle," Kessling wrote in his report, "I observed in plain sight in the defendant's right front change pocket, partially sticking out, a small clear plastic packet containing a white powder substance." Marin was charged with cocaine possession. In all, he was carrying three grams. On May 11, 1984, Judge Darryl J. Stone sentenced him to 18 months' probation.
The cocaine was obviously something more than a personal habit. On August 28, 1984, BSO attempted to pull over Marin's 1984 black Corvette. As soon the deputy set his patrol lights ablaze, a passenger in the Corvette threw out of the driver's-side window "a clear plastic baggie containing a substance that appeared white in color," according to the police report. The Corvette then accelerated for two blocks at a high rate of speed before stopping. Deputies recovered the discarded bag, which was filled with smaller bags of cocaine. In all, Marin had 132 grams of white gold.
While serving eight months in prison, Marin had time to perfect his business plan. In 1985, he expanded his cocaine operation from one-ounce packages to half-kilo and kilo quantities, according to a 1991 federal indictment that alleged Marin was part of a drug ring that purchased cocaine in Miami and resold it in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Jacksonville, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Alabama, and Canada. Marin then invested the drug proceeds in seemingly legitimate businesses, including A-1 Limousine Service and G-Willikers Night Club, the indictment alleged. Marin pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute five kilos or more of cocaine and received 57 months in prison, plus five years of probation.
He wasn't the only one to go down. Among those also indicted was John Holmes, who was elected to a Broward County judgeship in the early '70s as a motorcycle-riding 29-year-old who advocated the legalization of marijuana. After stepping down as judge, Holmes represented high-profile drug dealers, including Marin.
In fact, Holmes became so closely linked to Marin's cocaine enterprise that the former judge was forced to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to distribute cocaine. Among Holmes' duties for Marin, according to the indictment, was to provide information about law-enforcement investigations and advise witnesses to flee rather than provide potentially damaging grand-jury testimony against Marin. For his guilty plea, Holmes received 27 months in prison. In December 2000, the former judge was found dead at age 56 in a pay-by-the-week motel from complications of alcoholism.
Marin's last major legal run-in came in October 1997. Federal prosecutors indicted him and Marin Spariosu, who in 1999 bribed a federal corrections officer to keep quiet about the escape plans of imprisoned drug kingpin Salvador Magluta, for an alleged scheme to launder drug money. Marin pleaded guilty and received one year in prison plus three years of supervised release.
Then came the Internet boom. By 2000, Marin reportedly had taken over an adult web company called Opt-In Services. During Internet porn's infancy, Opt-In Services employed exotic dancers to provide one-on-one private shows online for $6 per minute. Marin later dismissed the dancers and sold archived photos and videos, he told the Miami Herald in an article about Internet porn. "You don't have to baby-sit them," he said of the dancers. "And I save $35,000 a month."
Running the porn site coincidentally gave Marin his first taste of spam. "He made a little bit of money [from Opt-In Services] and spammed to support it," says Brower, who has followed Marin's endeavors in junk e-mail. "But when real businessmen realized they could make money at porn, he got put out of business."
That's when Marin apparently moved to spam in a big way. Among those who work to blacklist IP addresses associated with spammers, Eddy Marin is a familiar name. "He's one of the better-known and one of the more prosperous spammers," Brower says. "He's gone out of his way to make himself a poster boy for unwanted e-mail."
Marin was linked circumstantially to a now-defunct organization that sued Brower and other spam fighters and lobbied in Washington for the rights of junk e-mailers. Earlier this year, Boca Raton lawyer Mark Felstein formed eMarketersAmerica.org, which sued Brower, Spamhaus, and others associated with fighting spam for, among other things, libel and damages associated with the operation of a blacklist of spammer IP addresses.
Although Felstein would never say who was behind the group, Spamhaus director Steve Linford stated publicly that he believed the organization was a front for Marin. "By no coincidence, Mark E. Felstein is also the personal lawyer of Florida's top spammer, Eddy Marin, who by no coincidence is also based in Boca Raton," Linford posted on the Spamhaus website after the lawsuit was filed. "Spamhaus therefore maintains that eMarketersAmerica.org is simply a front for Marin's spam gang."
The lawsuit became heated. One month after it was filed, Brower and Felstein met at a May 1 Federal Trade Commission workshop on junk e-mail. After the workshop, Brower remembers being bumped. "I turned around and realized it was Mr. Felstein," Brower recalls. "I said to him, recognizing who he was: 'You don't want to bump into me.'"
Felstein then went berserk, according to Brower. "Assault! Assault!" Brower remembers Felstein yelling. "I've been assaulted!"
A federal judge dismissed Felstein's eMarketersAmerica lawsuit in October. Following the dismissal, the Boca Raton attorney agreed to be interviewed about his organization and the lawsuit against spam fighters. But Felstein later canceled the appointment after he learned that New Times had inquired into why the New York Bar had denied his application due to "misconduct in college, history of substance abuse, criminal record and lack of candor since college concerning such matters," according to a court order issued June 6. (The bar could not provide additional details.)
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Reached on November 18, Felstein again refused to comment about himself or Marin. "I'm really not interested in talking to reporters," he said. Marin did not respond to an interview request.
If Marin indeed runs one of the world's best-known spam operations, as Brower and other junk e-mail fighters allege, he's apparently not happy with the reputation. In January, Felstein filed lawsuits in Palm Beach County alleging that Marin had been slandered when two people posted individual messages on the Internet calling the Boca Raton businessman a spammer. Both cases are pending.
Dallas computer programmer Stephen Whitis laughs upon hearing that Marin sued after being called a spammer. On September 21, Whitis became a victim of one of Marin's companies. "They were sending out spam that was using my domain name," he says. As Andy Markley did, Whitis traced his spam back to Internet America LLC. Now the two hope to find other victims for possible legal action against Marin.
"The net is arguably the most important advance in human communication since the invention of the printing press, maybe even more important than radio or TV because of its interactive nature," Markley says. "But the Internet has been hijacked by spammers and racketeers."