By MYLENE MANGALINDAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
When all 24 office phones at Scott Richter's e-mail marketing company started ringing at once, with nobody at the other end of the line, employees knew they were under attack again.
Daniel Dye, the systems administrator, could do little. After 15 minutes into the lunchtime assault last month, Mr. Dye recalls yelling, "Go ahead and pull your phones out of the walls for now. It'll be easier to think about what to do." Examining the phone system's central computer, Mr. Dye found that someone had hacked into it and programmed a feature that caused all the phones to ring at the same time.
Mr. Richter's company had been "flamed" -- attacked by a shadowy group of vigilantes who have taken to harassing spammers using just about any means they can dream up. Spam, or unsolicited commercial e- mail, has set off a war between marketers and people who hate spam. Mr. Richter, who is a mass commercial e-mailer, has become a frequent target of attackers known as antispammers.
They form a loose affiliation that uses the Internet to coordinate attacks from around the world. E-mail marketers often feel powerless against them. "It's an underground cult running it," says Mr. Richter, whose Westminster, Colo., e-mail marketing business, Optinrealbig.com (www.optinbig.com1), pitches mortgages, adult-related products and Viagra. "You don't know who they are."
Here's one of them: Mark Jones, a 26-year-old software engineer in Enterprise, Ala., who calls himself a "soldier" in the war against spam. From his home at night, he tracks down spammers by tracing the complex routing code hidden in e-mail messages. He reports them to what antispammers call "realtime blacklists," Web sites that track known spam sources and allow computer administrators to block certain Internet addresses.
Then, he fights back. "Anytime we find a source of spam," he says, "we spam them back."
After his three children were asleep late one Saturday night last November, Mr. Jones sat down at his PC for a bit of spammer-flaming. First, he says, he visited a Web site, slashdot.org (www.slashdot.org2), that's a favorite among techies; he pulled down a list of about 10 alleged spammers. He programmed his personal computer to send a letter to each supposed spammer in the same way many spammers do: through so- called open relays and mail servers that forward e-mail in ways that make it hard to track down the sender. As his finishing stroke, he had his PC send the message to each spammer 10,000 times.
"We use the same methods the spammers use," says Mr. Jones, chuckling. "It's a bombardment."
Spam is out of control. It's the No. 1 complaint of most e-mail users. AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit, the No. 1 Internet service, says as much as 80% of incoming e-mail to its system is spam. Laws to regulate it have been proposed in Congress.
Mass e-mailers don't consider turnabout fair play. Such bombardment can be devastating to their businesses. When Tom Tsilionis walked into his office in Newark, N.J., one morning last month, he too was greeted by the sound of ringing phones, 12 of them. "You're going to have some kind of day today," one of his frazzled receptionists told him. "Everything's down: E-mail's down; servers are down; the Web site's down."
Mr. Tsilionis denies that he is a spammer. He runs Perfect Telecom, a telecom and Web- hosting company whose clients include bulk e- mailers. When he was attacked, he called his Greek data center in Athens. He got confirmation that all 184 server computers had stopped working, overwhelmed by roughly 15 million e-mail messages that had arrived all at once. Meanwhile, 30,000 complaints had been filed against Mr. Tsilionis's company with the telecommunications companies that provide his Internet access, leading them to cut off Mr. Tsilionis's access. His business stayed down for 10 days.
"I thought in this country you're innocent until proven guilty," says Mr. Tsilionis.
No one knows how many antispammers there are. Antispammers can't even agree on a common definition of spam. Many are like Mr. Jones, who works in solitude and says he has little idea who his fellows are and doesn't really care. He doesn't consider any of his tactics to be illegal.
On the receiving end, Mr. Richter, 32, last month got in the mail five copies of Glamour that he hadn't subscribed to, followed by four copies of Cosmopolitan days later. Among the names to whom the periodicals were addressed: "I hate you," and "Die, spammer." It's easy for antispammers to sign up marketers under fake or real names for free trial subscriptions by going to Web sites such as bluedolphin.com (www.bluedolphin.com). Publishers are willing to send the bills after subscriptions start.
His assistant regularly cancels unsolicited subscriptions. Mr. Richter doesn't consider himself a spammer because he says he sends e-mail only to lists of people who have "opted in" by indicating to someone they have done business with that they are willing to receive e-mail promotions.
After the telephone attack on Mr. Richter's office, Mr. Dye, the systems administrator, called the police to report the intrusion. Some marketers say they would love to take legal action against vigilantes, but it's hard to track them down.
David Kramer, a Silicon Valley lawyer who has followed the spam issue, says many antispammer tactics are illegal. Crashing a data center by flooding it with traffic is certainly a form of trespassing and tampering with private property, he says.
Some antispammers disavow the more-extreme tactics. These less-fanatical activists, sometimes disparaged in antispam circles as "quakers" or "spam apologists," advocate strictly legal approaches such as reporting spammers to service providers.
Mark Ferguson, a 40-year-old Healdsburg, Calif., resident says he sticks to reporting spammers to Internet services and blacklists. But he acknowledges his fellow activists include people who use legally questionable methods. "We have some nut cases," he says.
Clearly, a big attraction for some of the more extreme vigilantes is bragging rights. Karen Hoffmann, a 42-year-old computer systems analyst, attained fame among antispammers two years ago for documenting the real-estate properties of a bulk mailer named Thomas- Carlton Cowles, who lives in her hometown, Toledo, Ohio. She tracked down Internet addresses he had registered, visited the physical locations of each one. Then she took pictures of his house and buildings in which he had offices and put them on a Web site.
Ms. Hoffmann says her objective was to dispel a myth that spammers aren't well-off. "It turns out this gentleman lives in a very expensive home," she says. Mr. Cowles, who heads an e-mail marketing company called Empire Towers Corp., declines to comment, says an Empire employee who asked not to be named, because he doesn't want to encourage Ms. Hoffmann. Privately, says the employee, Mr. Cowles calls her "my stalker." Ms. Hoffman denies stalking him.
Write to Mylene Mangalindan at email@example.com