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Tom Cowles, however, objects to the notion that he is ruining the e-mail marketplace. Fingered on a perp list of top spammers worldwide by watchdog group Spamhaus.org Cowles, 35, runs Empire Towers Corp., based in Bowling Green, Ohio. The 5 billion e-mail ads his company spews each month include offers for nutritional supplements and window and siding installation. ("I don't do porn," he says.) He won't name his "several hundred" corporate clients, but says they include 10 publicly traded companies. It's a living, and then some. Cowles has 60 employees in Ohio, Nevada, Florida and Texas, and says his company made $12 million in sales last year.
The bottom line is this: as long as a sliver of e-mail users click through to investigate those work-at-home opportunities and other come-ons, the great majority of users will continue to be barraged by spam. "I do see the argument that if a consumer gets 100 e-mails a day, you get numb to it," admits Cowles, who claims he de-lists "chronic complainers." But spam "will only die out when it's no longer going to be profitable." Or when enough roadblocks pop up. Internet service providers routinely try to thwart spammers, some by taking them to court. Verizon last week won a settlement from prolific spammer Alan Ralsky, barring him from e-mailing Verizon's 1.6 million Internet users ever again.
In any case, tighter marketing budgets and the scramble to boost business will increasingly blur the line between e-mail marketing and spam. Companies are quietly stepping up efforts to sneak into your In box by acquiring lists of addresses from marketing partners or dangling sweepstakes to get you to register your address. "Some very respectable companies come to us with a list of postal addresses they currently send direct mail to, and ask us for the people's e-mails," says Michael Mayor, president of e-mail list managers NetCreations, who says he refuses to sell those e-mail addresses.
But others aren't so persnickety. When Internet-based retailer Toysmart went bankrupt in 2000, it tried to pay off some creditors by selling its customers' e-mail addresses and retreated only when the Federal Trade Commission filed suit. Earlier this year, popular Internet portal Yahoo changed the terms of its privacy agreements (as AOL and eBay had done earlier) to allow it to send e-mail offers to registered members unless they specified otherwise.
While 26 states have antispam laws, the direct-marketing industry has lobbied to keep tough federal legislation off the books. "Any legal limits on spammers might also limit other direct marketers," says David Sorkin, an associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who runs watchdog group Spamlaws.com "They don't want to lose the right to prospect for new customers by e-mail."