Are Hurricanes Swamping Spammers?

Lots of folks think the hits that the Sunshine State (aka Spam State) have taken slowed the volume. Probably isn't so, though

By Burt Helm

Steve Delgado, the marketing manager of Arial Software, got a pleasant surprise when he checked his e-mail Monday morning, Sept. 13. His in-box had only 70 spam messages. "My e-mail [address] is all over the Internet, so I usually get about 200 over the weekend." And he has a theory to explain it: "I believe that the slowdown of spam e-mails in my in-box is directly related to the adverse weather in Florida," he says, "and that the hurricanes are disrupting spammers in Boca Raton and other cities with spammy reputations."

Delgado isn't alone. Anti-spammers have been batting the idea back and forth on Internet newsgroups and in chat rooms since last week. One contributor went so far as to compare the hurricanes to Noah's flood: "And God saw that the wickedness of spam was great in Florida," he writes, "[and God said] 'I will cause it to rain upon Florida forty days and forty nights; and every living spammer that I have made will I destroy from off the face of Florida.'"


  The Sunshine State certainly has developed a "spammy reputation." In 2003 an audacious group of the state's e-marketers made news by suing anti-spam advocates for trying to block them from conducting business (the case was later dropped). Plenty of perfectly legitimate e-marketers exist, but industry observers like to joke that the unofficial capital of the Spam State is Boca Raton. Recent lawsuits have alleged large spam gangs in the city, and spammer Scott Hirsch, -- who sold his e-marketing business in 2002 for $135 million -- told Time magazine that he likes to think he helped make Boca "the spam capital of the world."

Wrath of God or not, e-marketers and spammers in the area say they've been left reeling by all the bad weather. And with Hurricane Ivan's winds in excess of 130 miles per hour bearing down on Florida's Gulf Coast, the notion of a direct correlation between flooding, loss of power, and a drop-off in spam has taken on a cachet among the Web cognoscenti.

"Anybody in this business would have been affected" by the weather, says Chris Rosetti, who runs E-list Marketers, an e-mail direct-marketing firm. "It's horrible. We have no power [to run our computers]" E-list's Boca servers went down for two days during Hurricane Frances, but it was able to continue operations by switching over to servers it owns in other states.


  Denny and Eddy Marin, who run Omnipoint Media, also in Boca, had to close their offices on both Friday and Monday of the weekend Frances hit, though they were able to keep their servers up and running. Spamhaus, an online database that tracks spammers and "spam-gangs," lists Eddy Marin as the #8 "Top Spammer" in the world during August, 2004.

West of Boca on the Gulf Coast, Eric Reinertsen of Data Stream Group in Bonita Springs had his own troubles a few weeks earlier. Reinertsen, whose company has sent messages with subject lines like "Make Unlimited Calls for $69.95!" had to cease operations for 18 hours after Hurricane Charley hit in mid-August. Heroically, Reinertsen still pulled the #10 "Top Spammer" spot for the month.

Are several major natural disasters all it takes to quell a couple weeks worth of spam? Experts at anti-spam advocacy groups doubt it. "[Spammers] tend to exist all over the place. Florida represents such a small quantity of the total worldwide, I can't imagine it would have a major impact." says Michael Osterman of Osterman Research Group, which looks at spam trends.

"I wouldn't say Florida has more than their fair share of spammers, [but] it's kind of an industry joke," says Anne Mitchell, who runs the Institute for Spam & Internet Public Policy. "It's like poking fun at people from Buffalo for having a lot of snow."


  Groups that monitor spam traffic also aren't so sure that hurricanes have wreaked havoc on overall spam traffic. The week of Sept. 6 (which included the aftermath of Frances and the oncoming threat of Ivan) showed a low for the month, at 600 million spam messages worldwide, down from a steady weekly tally of 700 million, according to e-mail protection company Postini. But daily results posted by MessageLabs, Earthlink (ELNK ), and Symantec (SYMC ) showed little correlation. And despite the state's reputation, neither Postini or MessageLabs have found that Florida really does have an abnormal concentration of spammers.

Hurricanes or not, e-marketers in Florida press on. As Ivan gained strength last week, Discount Home Shopping Club in Englewood, Fla., decided to play it safe. The company uses a network-affiliate marketing model, in which thousands of "independent contractors" earn money by e-mailing ads on commission, though DHS Club says it prohibits independents from sending unsolicited ads. Last week it closed up shop, shut down its servers, and headed for the hills -- specifically its corporate retreat in the mountains of Tennessee -- until CEO Richard Burke felt it was safe to open for business again on Sept. 13.

Burke says the storm has left his thousands of independent marketers idly waiting, with nary a send-button to push. But never fear, he assures, his marketers will survive. "If Ivan [had actually] hit, we were prepared to co-locate our servers in Atlanta," he says. "We're in this for the long haul."

The bottom line: Nature's wrath on spammers makes for an eye-grabbing fable. But more likely, neither rain, nor snow, nor slashing winds will keep unsolicited e-mail from its appointed rounds.

Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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