Adam Penenberg: Last week, many netizens cheered when Jeremy Jaynes, the eighth-ranked spammer in the world, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Jaynes, who also went by the name Gaven Stubberfield, was famous for pushing “zoo” porn and operating various spam scams.
He fired off millions of e-mail messages, clogging ISP servers and inboxes with various come-ons while amassing a fortune estimated at about $24 million. But that’s not why he’s going to jail. A Loudoun County, Virginia, jury found him guilty of three counts of forging e-mail headers.
Like Martha Stewart, he wasn’t convicted of a crime as much as he was nailed for trying to cover his tracks. Unlike Martha and other white-collar criminals, he may serve as much time in prison as a bank robber, rapist or someone who committed manslaughter.
What this tells us is that in the spam game, e-mail isn’t the only way to send a message.
Graham Cluley of Sophos, an antispam and antivirus peddler, said, “This sentence sends out a strong message to other spammers that their activities are not going to be tolerated by the U.S. authorities…. It’s likely that Jeremy Jaynes’ nine-year sentence will keep a few spammers awake at night wondering if the rewards are really worth it.”
Steve Linford of The Spamhaus Project crowed, “We are very pleased the Virginia jury recommended nine years. It sends the right message to the rest of the U.S.-based spammers that jail time is waiting for them.”
And not to be outdone, an Associated Press headline read: “Judge sends a message: nine years for spammer.”
Imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning and checked one of my many throwaway webmail accounts, which I keep under various noms de plume (my favorite is “media_wh0re”). I found the same pile of spam I always get — for penile enhancements, Viagra, hot girl-on-girl porn and lower mortgage rates.
I guess not everyone got the message. And why should they? Jaynes was prosecuted under a Virginia statute, while many spammers detonate their spam bombs from other countries. I applaud prosecutors for going after spammers, but I don’t expect that it will have much impact.
“The problem is, we’re getting into a war-on-drugs type of situation,” said Brian McWilliams, author of Spam Kings: The Real Story Behind the High-Rolling Hucksters Pushing Porn, Pills and %*@)# Enlargements. “Knocking a guy like Jeremy Jaynes out of business doesn’t solve the demand side of the spam problem. There’s still a significant number of people who respond favorably to spam, and as long as that’s true, spammers will keep trying to reach them.”
Indeed. Recently, DoubleClick reported that clickthrough rates on e-mail were still at about 8 percent. With hundreds of millions of spam messages shooting through cyberspace every year, you do the math. Unless we can convince people not to click through on these (often) bawdy ads, perhaps we need to look at things differently.
After all, “people go to jail for mail fraud all the time, but it doesn’t make me less likely to send a letter,” pointed out Jeff Rohrs, president of Optiem, an interactive-marketing agency specializing in permission-based e-mail marketing. “E-mail is just a bit ahead of the curve when compared to other digital media because its cost of entry is so low. What other medium lets you send to millions of people for pennies? That’s why it remains so attractive to spammers.”
Citing a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study, Rohrs believes that consumers are getting used to the nuisance of spam. Witness the drop in people who say that they are spending less time with e-mail, from 29 percent last year to 22 percent this year; and the drop in people who trust e-mail less because of spam, from 62 percent to 53 percent. He would like to see these numbers compared to traditional media like TV, radio and direct mail.