January 21, 1999 4:00 AM PST
Is the king of spam back in business?
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The king of spam, that is: Sanford Wallace, once proud to be known both as the "King of Spam" and "Spamford" for his notorious and successful venture in sending unsolicited junk email, is back in business.
Early last year, Wallace abdicated his throne after antispam advocacy groups and corporate lawsuits virtually forced him from the Net. The seat of his reign, the reviled CyberPromotions, expired under the weight of more than $3 million in debt, most of it the result of legal settlements.
In defeat, Wallace embraced his foes, assumed the moniker "antiSpamford," and all but disappeared from the online medium.
But after a year of lying low, the lure of bulk email has brought Wallace back. This time, he claims, he's cleaned up his act.
"I'm not spamming again," Wallace said in an interview with CNET News.com. "I am the most antispam person alive because of the trouble my old company got into."
CyberPromotions was processing 30 million pieces of junk email per day when it went belly up in February of last year. The firm had sued its backbone provider AGIS for alleged contract violation when it kicked CyberPromotions offline; that case did not come to trial. And Internet service provider EarthLink negotiated a $2 million settlement with Wallace and CyberPromotions after suing for spamming EarthLink users.
The EarthLink settlement included a $1 million personal judgment against Wallace if he were to violate the agreement. "That in itself was a big incentive to stop spamming," Wallace reflected.
Thus began Wallace's year in exile.
"I completely disappeared online," Wallace said. "I didn't attempt to put up a site or anything--there were so many people that would complain the second they saw me online, I didn't take the chance."
In September of last year, Wallace tiptoed back onto the scene with the launch of sanfordwallace.com, offering "opt-in" bulk email services in which recipients would only receive mail with their permission.
Wallace had few takers on the email recipient end of things, so in October he launched SmartBot.net, a corporate autoresponder service. The service is free--but there's a catch. Users agree to join Wallace's bulk email list.
SmartBot automatically responds to customer email, and persists in contacting that customer at predetermined times. Business for SmartBot has been booming, according to Wallace. It boasts 46,000 business clients, with membership expanding at 40 percent per month.
"This is the perfect system for me," Wallace said. "Anyone who signs up with SmartBot automatically signs up on my list. That's how I've been building the list, and it's been extremely successful. There's been no controversy, and my service providers haven't kicked me off. I'm doing everything the politically correct way, as far as I know."
Wallace's new methods have raised the hackles of at least one of his email recipients, however.
Robert Woodhead runs SelfPromotion.com, a site that will submit other Web sites to the major search engines and indexes. SelfPromotion.com also rates sites on request. Woodhead claims that Wallace sent him email using the address left by the email robot that notifies sites that they've received a selfpromotion.com rating.
Wallace denies he's spamming.
"Anyone who sends me commercial offers, if I decide I want to reply back, I add them to my contact list," Wallace said. "If he sends me mail, he can't object to my sending him email."
Woodhead maintains that his email was not unsolicited.
"The only way you'd get email from that robot is if you asked for your site to be rated," Woodhead said.
In his bulk email, Wallace lays out five conditions under which he will send email: "A) You are an existing customer or B) You sent unsolicited commercial email to one of Sanford's domains in the past or C) Your email address was included in an unsolicited commercial email that was sent to one of Sanford's domains in the past or D) You have filled out a form on Sanford's Web page or E) You signed up for a free SmartBot autoresponder."
Woodhead acknowledged that Wallace hadn't outright spammed him, but said the former spammer was "right on the edge."
"Last I heard, this guy had said, 'I've given up on spam, I've turned over a new leaf, I'm not going to do it anymore' and went off into the wilderness," Woodhead said. "Then this email pops into my mailbox. It seems to me like he's bending things a little bit."
One thing that raised a red flag with Woodhead was Wallace's subject email header, which read, "Subject: Email problem / limited space."
"That's a typical spam trick," Woodhead said. "But it may just be a habit for him that he can't break."