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A Spam Blast from the Past

A couple of days ago an ex-employee of Opt-In Inc., was kind enough to do a Reddit AMA answering questions about their experience working with Steve Hardigree in the “legitimate” email marketing industry, back in the early 2000s.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I thought I’d share some of his more interesting answers here.

Everyone knows everyone

The spam business was super incestual. You can almost trace it in this country back to 5 guys who started the first big “legitimate” company. Every new email company would be from an employee who learned from them and wanted to make their own money. It was almost like a pyramid scheme for spam. Bottom line was everyone knew each other because we had all worked with one another at some point. Sometimes things were professional between each other because often times we’d rent each others lists. More often than not we talked shit about each other and resented the competition and over crowding of the industry.

We were pretty good about not sending creepy stuff. Worst we did was viagra knock-offs.

Descent from legitimacy to crap

At first we generated our own lists. We had a couple sweepstakes websites, a data hosting site, and some general information sites that offered content for a variety of subjects. People would sign up and offer up their demographic information as well as personal information. That was the good data from when the company was run professionally.

Eventually as the market changed from targeted blasts to general blasts we had to start buying data. The normal profile would just be name and email and we’d pay around $.005 to $.01 per record and then we’d buy a million records or so. We’d usually make the money back in 2 weeks. Usually we’d just buy records from our competition or from companies who were trying to quit and fold up shop.

Clients ranged from respected companies like ESPN and universities looking for new students. That was really in the earlier days when the company was a little more legitimate. Towards the end of the company’s life we were taking any crap offer we could find like mortgage refinance companies which were a dime a dozen.

Your information was either provided to us from a partner company, most likely a sweepstakes company that could generate over 1,000 new sign-ups a day. Either that or we’d buy your record from a reseller for about 1/10th of a penny per record.

The place was insane. Lots of young people making too much money. For example we had an official company drug dealer who’d come in once a week selling cocaine.

Like a modern ESP

We did the mailings ourselves. We had our own IP’s and handled it all in-house. In fact, we even housed the lists of other companies and handled their mailings to their own clients. I’d like to say handled those lists professionally, we usually cherry picked the best data they had and kept a copy for ourselves too.

That’s a nice list you have there

We broke some of the CAN-Spam laws, though the way that was originally written it was really more like a list of suggestions than a law. It’s since been amended and is a it stronger, but still kind of worthless.

The main thing was theft. One thing we would do was we’d approach a company that had an email list and give them a really nice offer. We’d give them an advance of $10K for 10 million email addresses, and pitch a deal. We’d send a very nice email offer to the database and for each person who signed up with us, we’d pay them $5 per record or something around that. So assuming normal conversion rates, they’d estimate they would receive a total of $20K to $30K.

Thing is we’d never run the offer. We’d basically just take the records, let the keep the $10K, and if they asked we’d let them know their list underperformed but they could keep the data. The end result was we’d buy their list for about a quarter of what it was really worth.

We had a number of other ways that we’d take other companies data as well, but that was the most successful way.

Bribing the AOL Postmaster

Bribes. Gmail wasn’t around yet, but the big email provider at the time was AOL and if you could get white listed with them you were gold. So we very often sent gifts to the Post Master of AOL. He got a lot of basketball tickets from us. Eventually though he started just taking the tickets and stopped white listing us. That end of that relationship was in fact one of the big things that lead to the demise of the company.

This is one reason why AOL email addresses were so prized and being able to deliver to them was so important. AOL members were the least savvy around. They were a goldmine.

Legitimate Email Marketers

Never did malware developing. Though there were lots of those companies in the area. The stretch of road our office was on was referring to as “Misery Mile” and it had a lot of spam companies, physical junk mailers, and malware companies that were doing things like ad bars you couldn’t remove.

And we did advertise in trade magazines and attended conventions. Keep in mind we never actually billed ourselves as a spammer. We were always referred to as “legitimate email marketers”… in the same way that mafia refer to themselves as “legitimate businessmen.” The business practices were didn’t quite live up to that, but we put up a decent front.

Drugs, Booze, Spammer Standards

Our real dark stuff was more around things like data theft and bad employee behavior. Lots of drugs, booze, and ultimately stints at rehab. 25% of the employees went. The company owner always wanted to sell so he was decent keeping us from getting too dirty, at least by spammer standards.

Need any Coke?

There was so much. Most of it drug related. The first week though when I was sitting at my cubicle and a guy came up to me and asked if I needed any cocaine. That was a pretty surreal moment. I also had a female coworker reach into her pants and pull a bag of weed from her crotch and offer me some. I declined both times.

No customer support on Fridays

As far as memorable days… lots of them. Not even sure where to begin. 2002 was a great year and that’s when most of the fun stories happened. Our VP at the time used to be the manager of one of the biggest strip clubs in Florida. So every Friday the office was nearly empty because all the staff would either head there or just go out drinking somewhere else. Or they would just stay and get drunk there. Everyone had a bottle of something in their desk.

That did come back to haunt at least one salesperson though. He was the brother-in-law of the top guy and was utterly worthless. He had a client drop in to surprise him, and unfortunately the guy was piss drunk (it’s about noon on Friday). The sales manager tried to help him out, but he started to get violent with him, and was yelling and getting aggressive. The client figured out what was up, but the sales manager insisted he was just suffering from a fever. And 3 minutes after the client left the sales guy puked all over the floor. Good times.

Enlightened hiring policies

Lots of those stories involved strippers who were trying to go legit. The VP of the company used to manage a big strip club in South Florida. So he had lots of contact there still, and anytime a girl wanted to get out he would offer her a position at our company as a secretary or sales assistant.

Most of these girls were completely worthless, but they were really just there for eye candy…. and to be fucked by every guy who could talk them into it.

For a specific example the owner of the company got into an affair with one of these girls. She went psycho. His wife found out and gave him an ultimatum…. move 200 miles away or get a divorce. He moved. Psycho girl followed. But he never fired her so there was always nonstop drama there.

… and other bodily fluids

I feel like I owe you a better story since that was me writing shortly after I woke up, so here’s a better one.

At the height of the company the c-level execs were partying really hardcore since technically they didn’t have to be in the office that much. It got to the point where they had a room on permanent reservation at an extended stay hotel a few blocks away.

One week they didn’t show up, along with a few other employees. At the end of the week the VP’s wife called because she hadn’t seen or heard from him in 6 days. So somehow I got picked to go to the hotel room since we pretty much knew where they were and take him home.

When I got there it looked like a scene out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Broken shit everywhere, crap on the walls, puke and other bodily fluids all over the place. There were only 3 people left at this point; the owner, the VP, and this dried up whore of a saleswoman. Somehow we got the VP together enough that I could take him out in public, but he fucking wreaked. I took him home (did not want to hear what his wife had to say), and my car smelled for a month from him sitting in it for 10 minutes.

Time to get the hell out of Dodge

After a while I was conflicted. When I first started we ran targeted email campaigns. We had some demographic and personal interest data on most of our records so we could match up the right offer to a person who would be interested, but after a while the market changed to a different model. Instead of doing targeted mailings we’d just send out a million records at a time, with the logic being we’d still hit the same number of interested people, but we wouldn’t have to worry about the quality of the data. So at that point I really did feel like we were just bombarding people with no good reason.

Leaving was hard at first because I was making good money. When the money started to dry up I had a new problem. Being a spammer is kind of a black mark on a resume, you know? Eventually I got a job thanks to a creatively written cover letter and a manager with a sense of humor who was willing to overlook my last job.

Moving on

It is still on my resume, but it was almost 10 years ago now so its pushed pretty far to the bottom. I’ve abridged my job description for it now to just say Email Traffic Coordinator and I play up the experience with HTML and working with a SQL database which was is a valid explanation and description for part of my time.

The job was a black eye for me when I first tried to leave. Once I was ready to leave it took me 9 months before I got offered a job. After that it was more of an amusing story during interviews, though I leave out most of the bad stuff.

Spam. Spam never changes.

It’s not nearly bad as it was while I was in the industry but plenty of companies are still quite shady. I’m well aware of how companies like Datran/NetMargin/PulsePoint or whatever name they go by these days build their lists. Lots of people inadvertently get added to an email network when filling out a form thinking they’re just asking for information from a given company all because they accidentally clicked a box without reading the full privacy information.

All quotes are directly from the Reddit AMA. My commentary is based on a little research and my knowledge of the era.

The gentleman who did this AMA has done us all a huge favour by documenting how the email industry was in the early days a decade ago, and showing why people in the email industry still roll their eyes at phrases like “100% opt-in” or “legitimate email marketing”.

He worked for a spammer for less than three years a decade ago – something that’s not that unusual in the email industry; I can think of three or four friends of mine with similar stains on their resumé. Don’t dox him, harass him, harass his current employer or their ESPs or otherwise do any sort of Bad Things, please. Really.

5 comments

  1. laura says

    The email industry is still incestuous.

    On of the funny parts, though, is that the same 5 spammers are responsible for many of the folks in the anti-spam end of things. Sanford, Walt, Slaton… all those guys and their behaviour inspired people to figure out ways to stop them. A lot of those ideas turned into for profit products and filters. Many of us involved in the anti-spam movement moved on to work in the delivery, ESP and ISP industries.

  2. David Romerstein says

    “The” postmaster at AOL? In 2002?

    I’m pretty sure I know who was going to all those basketball games.

  3. Catherine Jefferson says

    A lot of people know who was AOL postmaster in 2002. :/

    I wonder if this former Opt-In Inc. employee was telling the truth. It’s difficult to imagine what possible benefit there would be to lying about his activities this many years later. Anything that he’d gain would have to be balanced against digging up the past about things that he can’t want on his resume these days. At the same time, maybe the guy has scores to settle and is settling them this way.

    I feel like I need a bath. :(

  4. Spamber says

    This is EPIC and so very true. One can relate tremendously.

  5. sunshine says

    This is part of what became the Reinertsen cartel, if I’m not mistaken. After that they got into affiliate marketing.

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