Anatomy of a spam - the Erickson letter

Dear Friend: You are about to make US$50,000 - in less than 90 days. Read the enclosed program. Then Reat It Again! ... If that frenetic pitch sounds familiar, you are among the thousands of email users who have been spammed in the past few months by Christopher Erickson, who may or may not even exist.

Dear Friend,

You are about to make US$50,000 - in less than 90 days. Read the enclosed program. Then Reat It Again! ...

If that frenetic pitch sounds familiar, you are among the thousands of email users who have been spammed in the past few months by Christopher Erickson.

And it is only going to get worse. Multilevel marketers, amid scheme operators and chain letter artists are quickly learning the power of bulk email spamming.

The Erickson letter is the most widespread recent example. It invites recipients to take part in what Erickson calls an email multilevel marketing (MLM) program that promises to make you wealthy.

But to many of the message's recipients, as well as hard-core opponents of online spamming, the offer is nothing less than a bid to commit postal fraud by asking people to send $20 for four "reports" that claim to show people how to make millions through - you guessed it - mass emailings.

Even worse, the letter urges all recipients to repeat the process and send bulk email by the thousands soliciting money for the reports. It offers to help by providing email lists.

This mass-contact strategy is the bedrock of the legal, though exceedingly annoying, multilevel marketing business, as well as its outlawed cousins, the pyramid scheme and the chain letter.

The Erickson letter - which is so prevalent it is known to anti-spammers as "the reports pyramid scam" - is indicative of what Sanford Wallace called an "exponential" increase in email spams for money-making schemes.

Wallace should know. He runs Philadelphia-based Cyber Promotions Inc., the Internet's best-known - and most-vilified - junk email service.

While neither email spamming nor get-rich-quick schemes are new, the Erickson letter represents the logical marriage of the two genres, according to Wallace.

"Email spam is such a perfect medium for MLM companies," Wallace says. "MLM companies are interested in getting their message out to many, many people."

Wallace said he is not familiar with the Erickson letter, even though some copies include a legal disclaimer from Cyber Promotions. That is because email users who are not Cyber Promotions customers can easily relay their messages through the service's Simple Mail Transfer Protocol server to hide their identities.

"We're going to put a stop to that," Wallace says. "This week we're working on a fix to only allow our customers to relay." Some of the people who have received Erickson's posts have forwarded copies to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the US Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service.

The FTC has been trying to rid cyberspace of scam operators. On April 24, the federal agency coordinated a "surf day" to uncover Web sites proffering bogus business opportunities. And last December, the FTC notified owners of more than 500 Web sites that they may have been promoting illegal pyramid schemes. FTC officials declined to comment on complaints about the Erickson letter or investigations into pyramid schemes being distributed via email spam.

Rolf Schmidt is less reticent about get-rich-quick email spams. Schmidt runs a Maryland-based Web site - the MMF (Make Money Fast) Hall of Humiliation - devoted to exposing and publicly shaming users who clog the Net with MLM, pyramid and chain letter spams.

Schmidt says the type of multilevel marketing letter bearing Erickson's name is "years old, but since the Christopher Erickson version encourages suckers to spread it via bulk email, it has been particularly virulent. I get at least one a week."

Schmidt says that although he has exposed people who have spread earlier versions of the letter, "I haven't successfully tracked down the original Christopher Erickson, if he indeed exists."

Schmidt has, however, nailed three online users who dutifully spammed email per the letter's request. And who were the perpetrators?

"All of them are teen-age boys," Schmidt says. This may explain why Schmidt bills his Hall of Humiliation as "the bane of 14-year-olds everywhere."

Meanwhile, Wallace offers some words of hope for online users enraged by the rise of get-rich-quick spams.

"Eventually it will hit a point where the amount of headache and complaints will override the profit potential, and then [this kind of spam] will die."

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