The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Monday, October 27, 2003

The Economics of Spam Part II

Until late last year, Shiels was an e-mail spammer. The type demonized in every nook of American society. A prodigious Internet marketer, who from his Portland home sent up to 10 million unsolicited e-mail advertisements a day for other companies.

He said he made as much as $1,000 a week—and could have raked in a lot more if he hadn't quit the business in October, six months after he started. The path to spamming success requires expensive investments in software and the agility to adjust to the technological warfare between spammers and companies that try to block their messages. It also requires the stamina to withstand daily hate mail and even death threats.

Shiels decided a spamming career wasn't worth the personal cost.


Very interesting article. When last I spoke about the economics of spamming, I was assuming a response rate of 1 per 70,000 and even there, it showed that yea, you could make money at that rate. The article above talks about a response rate of 1 per 10,000—much higher response rate and gives more numbers than Paul Graham did in his article.

We're talking 10,000,000 emails per day (sent out in 18 hours) with four computers and two broadband connections; 150 emails per second (and contrary to what I wrote it would only take a month to send 250,000,000 emails via broadband, not the four months via T3s I had worked out erroneously). And the software to do this isn't cheap:

He spent about $10,000 on software to harvest e-mail addresses, to disguise his online identity and to send millions of messages a day.

Shiels would not reveal the companies that make the proprietary software, and he said they are difficult to track down. They only accepted payments through wire transfers, Shiels said.

“I could tell you the name right now, and you wouldn't be able to find them,” he said.


But's it's sophisticated software—programs to harvest addresses from websites, programs to scan for open relays and programs to send the actual email via those open relays. But Shiels was able to make $1,000 per week doing this so there is money to be made, which means this problem isn't goint to go away any time soon.

Academic dishonestly amongst spammers?

I'm seeing more and more spam that comes in multiple parts. The first part contains plain text and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the product being pitched:

From: "Lajuan Aldona" <>
To: "Sean Conner" <>
Subject: Sean, Phenomenal Fl 4.72% rates - Now is the time
Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2003 18:41:02 -0700
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: multipart/alternative;

Content-Type: text/plain;

The option of Napster paying royalties to artists whose songs are downloaded would be a positive move because it would mean that artists receive fair compensation for their work.

However, on the other hand, to support the enormous cost of such a move, Napster would either have to turn into a paid subscription service, or show advertising (which wouldn't necessarily cover the costs). Added to this, the cost of modifying the application, and working out a way to determine what songs have been downloaded, the administration costs for Napster would skyrocket.

And so on. Then comes the actual pitch, always in HTML:

Content-Type: text/html; charset="iso-8859-1"

<p> <font size="2" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"> <strong> Mortgage Rate Network </strong> <br> <hr> <br> <strong> Dear Sean Conner, </strong> </font> <font size="2" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"> <br> TURN LOW INTEREST RATES INTO LOW HOUSE PAYMENTS </font> <font size="6" face="Webdings"> H </font> <font size="2" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"> <br> <hr> </font> <br> <font size="2" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"> If you haven't considered refinancing your home loan, you may be missing out on the best opportunity in years to save money. <br>

And so on; I'll spare you the horrible HTML used in the message.

Now, my guess is that the first section of text is there to bypass any Bayesian filters by bulking out the message with some real text. I've been seeing that more and more recently so either Bayesian filtering is getting quite effective, or the spammers think Bayesian filtering is getting quite effective, but in any case, messages like this are on the rise.

But the text used to bulk out the message is obviously copied in from somewhere. It then hit me, such bulking out appears to fall outside the scope of “fair use” since the spammer isn't writing an academic paper, critique, review or satire, and the purpose is purely commercial in nature (even if the commercial use isn't in the selling or reselling of the text in question but to get by filters to get the actual commercial message through) that such spammers are therefore liable for copyright infringement (in addition to possible anti-spamming laws that may be in place).

Curious as to where this text came from, I did a search on a fragment, and if I thought spammers using cut-n-paste to get by Bayesian filters was surprising, what I found was even more so! 4 Free Essays? Cheat House? Academic papers for sale? No wonder companies like Turn It In exist (and spiders my site constantly). I honestly don't know what's worse, spammers, or sites selling academic papers to spammers.

Man, what am I doing in this basket, and why is it so hot?

Obligatory Picture

[It's the most wonderful time of the year!]

Obligatory Contact Info

Obligatory Feeds

Obligatory Links

Obligatory Miscellaneous

You have my permission to link freely to any entry here. Go ahead, I won't bite. I promise.

The dates are the permanent links to that day's entries (or entry, if there is only one entry). The titles are the permanent links to that entry only. The format for the links are simple: Start with the base link for this site:, then add the date you are interested in, say 2000/08/01, so that would make the final URL:

You can also specify the entire month by leaving off the day portion. You can even select an arbitrary portion of time.

You may also note subtle shading of the links and that's intentional: the “closer” the link is (relative to the page) the “brighter” it appears. It's an experiment in using color shading to denote the distance a link is from here. If you don't notice it, don't worry; it's not all that important.

It is assumed that every brand name, slogan, corporate name, symbol, design element, et cetera mentioned in these pages is a protected and/or trademarked entity, the sole property of its owner(s), and acknowledgement of this status is implied.

Copyright © 1999-2023 by Sean Conner. All Rights Reserved.