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Spam Kings by Brian S McWilliams

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Mad Pierre's Homage to Shiksaa

One day after news broke of the PSINet pink contract, Shiksaa's not-so-secret admirer Mad Pierre posted a detailed spammer exposé on Nanae. The report represented the culmination of several days of work he had poured into researching a particularly persistent and cocky junk emailer. In some respects, it was Mad Pierre's homage to the consummate anti-spam researcher, Shiksaa. The dossier even cited some of the sleuthing groundwork she had previously laid.

Ordinarily, such an exposé would have spawned a long thread of discussion. But few spam fighters, Shiksaa included, paid much attention to his little opus at the time. They were still up in arms over the shady ISP deals and were busy congratulating Shiksaa for her role in exposing them. (Mad Pierre had showered her with his customary praise as well, exclaiming on IRC that she made him behave "like a testosteronal teenager in an AOL chat room"—a line that Shiksaa was quick to appropriate for use in her Usenet signature.)

Mad Pierre knew that the subject of his early-November exposé was just a penny-ante chickenboner compared to big-time Rokso spammers such as Scelson. But Mad Pierre felt someone in Nanae should focus on the brazen bulker who had been boasting, "I'm a college dropout. I work about two hours a day. I'm ambitious, but extremely lazy, and I make over $350,000 a year. Are you curious yet?"

"Well, I got curious," wrote Mad Pierre in his report.

The spammer proclaimed that his twenty-dollar CD not only included spamming software but could also enable Internet users to find confidential information on anyone in thirty minutes or less.

"I decided I couldn't wait that long," Mad Pierre wrote. Like other spam fighters before him, he began reviewing the registration information for PrivacyBuff.com and other domains mentioned in ads from QuikSilver Enterprises. But unlike even the incomparable Shiksaa, Mad Pierre laboriously did Internet searches on the various names and addresses listed in the registrations. After trying unproductive searches on James Kincaid, Winston Cross, and other aliases, Mad Pierre plugged the name "Davis Hawke"—the registrant of QuikSilver's resalepalace.com—into a search engine.

Mad Pierre hit pay dirt. He located a Washington Post article from August 1999 that mentioned Davis Hawke's leadership of the American Nationalist Party, the neo-Nazi group he started during his student days in South Carolina. The article noted Hawke's failure to coordinate the march on Washington by various white-supremacist groups. To be sure he had found his quarry, Mad Pierre ran other searches and pulled up corroborating data, such as the email account used to register some QuikSilver domains. Mad Pierre even found a small photo of Hawke from his Nazi days, published at Overthrow.com, a site operated by a Hawke antagonist and anarchist named Bill White.

"Many of us have been accused of being spam Nazis, but it looks as though Davis Wolfgang Hawke really is one," Mad Pierre concluded with a flourish.

He also wryly noted that Hawke was Jewish and had changed his name in 1996 from Andrew Britt Greenbaum. "You can see his dilemma, can't you?" Mad Pierre asked in the article, which he titled "The extraordinary story of Davis W. Hawke."

If Mad Pierre had published his exposé twelve months earlier, Davis Hawke might have been ashamed for the world to learn of his transformation from a neo-Nazi leader into a spammer. But by November 2000, the only dilemma Hawke had was keeping his web sites and credit card merchant account from being shut down. He wasn't directly aware of Mad Pierre's article, but Hawke indirectly felt the impact. Verio, the Texas-based ISP, shut down PrivacyBuff.com in response to Mad Pierre's report, forcing Hawke to scramble to line up a new host. He had set up mirror sites, with names including MerchantAccept.com and CompuZoneUSA.com, at other ISPs to minimize the revenues lost from such outages. Hawke also tried to erase all evidence of his connection to South Carolina. His new spams listed a rented post office box in New York City and a phone number in Boston that were both forwarded to his new mailbox and phone in Cosby, Tennessee.

Hawke and Patricia had moved at the end of the summer to the eastern Tennessee town of 800, which was just across the mountains from their old place in Leicester, North Carolina. To keep them company, they acquired two dogs that were half wolf. Nemesis, a female, was Patricia's pet. Hawke named his male Dreighton.

Patricia, who had earned her black belt, was starting up her own karate studio in a strip mall off Dolly Parton Parkway in nearby Sevierville. Hawke carved out a niche marketing to people in circumstances similar to his. Across the top of the PrivacyBuff.com site were the words, "Because sometimes...you need a fresh start." The site offered a couple dozen printed books with titles ranging from How to Make Fake Driver's Licenses and Other Identification Cards to Be Your Own Dick: Private Investigating Made Easy and How to Use Mail Drops for Profit, Privacy, and Self-Protection. Hawke charged between twenty and thirty dollars per title for the books, which were originally published by a variety of small presses.

At the site, Hawke introduced himself to visitors. "My name is Dave. Yours is John Smith, right? Nice to meet you," he wrote with a wink. The welcome message, which was signed "Dave Milton," acknowledged that shoppers probably wondered why he was offering to sell "such outlandish, anti-establishment titles." The first reason was simple, he wrote. "We want to make money." But rather than marketing cars, real estate, jewelry, and other products, PrivacyBuff.com was interested in spreading the word about "the unjust system of government in America and throughout the western nations," said the note. Milton and his staff were libertarians, he said.

"We believe that Government has only two mandates: national defense and public works. All other functions should be performed by the private sector, including education, welfare...we also favor the legalization of all drugs, an end to all taxes, and the abolition of the criminal justice system," he said.

While espousing such an ideology was a convenient marketing ploy, Hawke was genuinely intrigued by libertarianism. In many ways, the antigovernment political philosophy now fit him more comfortably than the racist, neo-Nazi views he had embraced during college. Starting as early as his freshman year in high school, Hawke grew disillusioned with the U.S. government. The catalyst was when international chess champion—and Hawke's personal hero—Bobby Fischer was charged by the U.S. in 1992 with defying a trade embargo against Yugoslavia. Fischer's crime consisted of traveling to the war-torn country to face Boris Spassky in a rematch of their 1972 meeting, which many had referred to as the "chess match of the century." Ignoring a cease-and-desist letter from the Treasury Department, Fischer won the match and a prize of $3.3 million but was immediately forced into exile when the U.S. issued a warrant for his arrest. (Fischer didn't help his case by boasting at a news conference before the match that he hadn't paid any federal income taxes for sixteen years.)

Around the same time, Hawke also latched onto Texas millionaire Ross Perot, who was making his bid for President. Perot had tapped into the national distrust of politicians and dissatisfaction with Washington bureaucracy, and in the summer of 1992 he was polling neck and neck with candidates Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. That autumn, Hawke arrived at the high school early to stand, usually alone and sometimes in the rain, with his Perot For President sign. Although Perot received an impressive 19 percent of the popular vote, Hawke was crushed when Bill Clinton won the general election.

Hawke had come to believe that spamming was a profession ideally suited for an underground economy free from government regulation and taxes. So, too, did lots of other Internet users. The best-selling title offered by QuikSilver wasn't How to Start Your Own Country or SCRAM: Relocating Under a New Identity, although each did pretty well. Hawke's top item was The Spambook, a kit that included an eighteen-page booklet he had found on the Internet along with an eight-page manual he authored himself: Seven Days to Spam Success.

Hawke's prose in Seven Days was clear, personable, and persuasive. Not surprisingly, the manual said writing good ad copy was the crucial element of spamming success. Hawke offered several tips, ranging from the schoolmarmish ("Use active verbs rather than passive verbs") to the more psychologically oriented ("Ask rhetorical questions frequently in your ad copy, as it engages their mental processes and encourages them to keep reading"). Seven Days advised spammers to tell customers what they wanted to hear but not to exaggerate too much, or they would risk losing customers' trust.

"I make $25,000 per week, but I'd NEVER claim that the Spambook will allow my customers to make that much money, because no one would ever believe me. I set the figure at a few thousand dollars a week because you can grab that amount much easier," he wrote in the booklet.

To take in that kind of income, a bulk emailer needed the ability to accept credit card orders, Hawke advised. Credit card buyers were mainly impulse buyers, he explained. Although setting up a credit card merchant account was fairly easy, Hawke warned that hassles and frustration were part of the business, and one merchant account provider had tried to steal over $6,000 from him by withholding funds he had processed. "Never keep more than a few thousand dollars in a bank account attached to your merchant account," he advised. "Make frequent withdrawals to keep it below $2,500 or you will be sorry."

Seven Days also included practical advice on obtaining email lists. Hawke counseled beginning spammers to avoid purchasing addresses in bulk on CDs and instead to harvest them fresh from web sites using one of the two programs included with the Spambook kit. Steer clear of harvesting from newsgroups, he advised: "These emails are usually very poor with professional anti-spammers included in the mix."

The manual also addressed the issue of targeting America Online subscribers. "If a spammer is like a hunter, then an AOL user is a twelve-point deer with a red ribbon on its head," observed Hawke. In general, AOL customers were new to the Internet, less knowledgeable, and more likely to waste their money, he noted. But because of the big ISP's spam filters, it was almost impossible to send email into AOL. "I have tried many methods and failed," he admitted.

As for bulk-email software, Hawke said he personally used Cybercreek Avalanche. "I have found it to be the best product of its kind on the market," he stated, although he conceded the program was pricey and "recommended for the serious spammer." Seven Days to Spam Success also recommended Send-Safe, a fairly new mailer program written by Russian programmers. Hawke included a copy of Send-Safe with the Spambook kit, pointing out that spammers first needed to purchase credits at the Send-Safe web site in order to use the software.

Hawke had discovered the Send-Safe site that summer. He liked the company's mailer, which was faster and less prone to crash than other programs he tried. As a registered user of the software, Hawke was also able to access a customer forum at the Send-Safe site, which served as a sort of Chamber of Commerce for bulk emailers. On the message boards there, spammers traded mailing lists, advertised affiliate programs, and made other business deals. Even though they were his competitors, Hawke enjoyed networking with people who faced the same obstacles he was dealing with every day.

As autumn took hold in the Tennessee hill country, Hawke grew weary of his lone-wolf existence. Aside from Patricia, he had no real friends or even business colleagues in the area. He got back into playing chess, initially in games against himself and then versus opponents over the Internet. For his first over-the-board competition since high school, Hawke drove to Nashville in October, entering a small tournament held in a bungalow owned by the local club. He introduced himself as Walter Smith to the five players who showed up and filled out a card to register with the U.S. Chess Federation under that name.

In high school Hawke, under the name Britt Greenbaum, had achieved a USCF rating of nearly 2000, which put him in the top 10 percent of chess players nationwide. Hawke, playing as Smith, easily defeated his two weaker opponents in Nashville, both of whom had sub-1600 USCF ratings, and he came away the winner of the tournament.

After the victory, Hawke entered weekend tournaments every week for the next month. He placed third in a tournament in Crossville, Tennessee and then came in second in the Under-2000 section of the North Carolina Open. His playing there lifted his USCF rating as Walter Smith to 1949, just fifty points below his peak rating of 1998 as Britt Greenbaum, which he had reached when he was fifteen. Hawke had always wanted to break the 2000 barrier, and his strong return to chess at the age of twenty-two made that goal now look attainable.

Hawke's heady rise was stalled, however, by a couple of lackluster performances in November, including a twenty-first place finish at the National Chess Congress. He had traveled all the way to Philadelphia to compete in the tournament, beating his first two opponents in the Under-2000 section. But he lost his third match, and then drew against his final two opponents, whom he considered mediocre players. His USCF rating dropped below 1900 after the poor showing. But Hawke was determined to finish his comeback year with a flourish.

A week before Christmas, Hawke returned to Nashville and entered a quick-chess tournament, again using the alias Walter Smith. Players were limited to just fifteen minutes of clock time, which gave nimble competitors an advantage. The favorites in the field of thirty-two were Jerry Spinrad, a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University who entered with a USCF rating of 2069, and Dale Rigby, an English professor at Western Kentucky University who had a USCF rating of 2031.

After he beat his first two opponents, Hawke faced Rigby in the third round. Rigby regarded "Smith" with suspicion. The newcomer entered the tournament without an official USCF rating, yet Smith obviously was no beginner. Rigby's intuition told him Smith was a sandbagger who had competed in plenty of tournaments before, perhaps under a different name. His suspicions were confirmed when he struggled before ultimately defeating Smith.

After the loss to Rigby, Hawke rebounded, winning his next three games, including one against a high school player who had been in the hunt for the tournament lead. That set up a showdown between Hawke and Spinrad in the seventh and penultimate round. Spinrad had won all of his matches until that point, including one against Rigby. He had watched the unknown "Smith" play in the early rounds and spoke with him briefly between matches. Smith struck him as friendly but not at all intimidated by the field, extremely confident of his chess skills. Indeed, Smith jumped out to a small advantage as their match began. While Spinrad never felt in danger of losing, he was relieved when time ran out, and he was able to come away with a draw. Smith, however, seemed disappointed with the outcome, as though he had expected to defeat the stronger player.

In the contest's final round, Hawke pulled off a win over a solid player, which gave him six and a half points in the tournament. But Spinrad also managed to defeat his final opponent, earning him a total of seven and a half points and the tournament title. Still, Hawke, playing as Smith, took a surprising second place and a forty-five-dollar prize, while Rigby finished third, just a half-point behind him.

As a kid, Hawke would have reviewed each round of the competition with his parents on the ride back home. Chess tournaments had always been a family activity for the Greenbaums. Both parents usually traveled with Hawke to chess competitions, and not just as spectators. Even his mother, who had originally taught him the game, would enter the tournament in the novice section. Hawke's father was rated slightly higher than she, though he never came close to beating his son. But neither parent entered a chess tournament again after Hawke went off to college.

Following his strong showing in Nashville, Hawke drove home to Cosby alone. Then, on the evening of December 24, 2000, as families all around the country gathered to celebrate the holidays, Hawke was in his trailer, using a UUNET dial-up account to send out a new batch of spam advertising the Banned CD. He knew some people might consider it a depressing way to spend Christmas Eve. But Hawke refused to indulge in such sentimental thinking.

The next day, a spam fighter filed complaints with UUNET and Hawke's web site host about the Banned CD ads. Hawke found out about the anti-spammer's reports a few days later. Now that, thought Hawke, was a depressing way for someone to spend Christmas morning.

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