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Alan Ralsky

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Country: United States
State: Michigan
Convicted fraudster, spams using hijacked proxies & virus infected PCs and in the past by hijacking mail servers and mail accounts. One of the first people to host spam-websites in China to evade US law. Served years in prison due to stock-fraud spamming, but soon after being released, seemed to get right back into spamming.


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MEDIA: A spammer is slowed but not defeated


A spammer is slowed but not defeated
Saul Hansell NYT
Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Alan Ralsky has long been, according to experts in the field, one of the most prolific senders of junk e-mail in the world. But he has not sent a single message over the Internet in the past few weeks.

He stopped spewing e-mail offers for everything from debt repayment schemes to time-share vacations even before President George W. Bush, on Dec. 16, signed the new CAN SPAM legislation meant to crack down on marketers like Ralsky. He plans to resume in January, he said, once he has overcome some computer problems, but only after he changes his practices to include his return address in the messages and other information required by the law.

That is quite a switch for Ralsky, who has earned a reputation as a master of cyberdisguise. By his own admission, he once produced more than 70 million messages a day, from domains registered with fake names - all so that the recipients could not ever trace the mail back to him.

Most experts in junk e-mail, universally known as spam, have dismissed the new U.S. law as largely ineffectual. And many high-volume e-mailers say the law may even improve the situation for them because one of its chief effects is to wipe away a handful of tougher state laws.

But to Ralsky, who lives in a Detroit suburb, the prospect of facing the law's penalties of up to $6 million and a potential five years in jail is making him rethink his business. "Of course I'm worried about it," he said after the law was signed. "You would have to be stupid to try to violate this law."

No one is saying that e-mail in-boxes will be clean of spam any time soon. But the world is getting to be a much more hostile place for spammers, particularly those who send some of the most offensive messages. The biggest threat is not so much the new law, though it is expected to play a role in stepped up enforcement, as the increased willingness of prosecutors to go after spammers.

In recent weeks, U.S. authorities have taken a series of tough civil and criminal actions against prominent spammers that have finally gotten their attention. "These suits sent a shock wave through the spam world," said Steve Linford, the director of the Spamhaus Project, an organization that tracks bulk e-mailers and tries to thwart their moves. "Lots of spammers are asking, 'Are we next?'"

Not long ago, Ralsky, like many other bulk e-mailers, had high hopes that the new U.S. law would help legitimize his operation. Just after Thanksgiving, he said he expected the new law to make his business easier. He would identify himself as required and honor any requests by people to be removed from his mailing lists, he said. In return, he said that he was counting on Internet providers to stop trying to block his messages.

But more recently, he said he came to the conclusion that the law was more one-sided than he originally thought.

"The law was not written for a commercial e-mailer," he said. "I don't think what they are doing is fair." He suggested that the law is largely a plot by the big companies that connect homes and businesses to the Internet to keep all the profit from online marketing for themselves.

Travel clubs and time-share offers are a staple of his business, as are debt consolidation services and e-books on how to win government grants. He says he does not deal in pills or pornography.

Ralsky's mailing list now exceeds 150 million names. Unlike many high-volume mailers, Ralsky does not claim to send only to people who ask to receive marketing pitches. He sees nothing wrong with sending unsolicited mail. He insists, though, that he has always honored requests by people to be removed from his list, something now required by the new law. As Ralsky's business has grown, so has the backlash. Spam-fighting organizations, like Spamhaus and the Spam Protection Early Warning System, work diligently to try to identify the addresses from which Ralsky is sending e-mail and put pressure on Internet providers to evict him from their networks.

And in 2001, Verizon Communications sued Ralsky, claiming he violated its policies by sending spam by the millions to its Internet customers. Last year, Ralsky settled the suit, paying an unspecified amount of damages and agreeing not to send mail to Verizon Internet customers again.

Ralsky responded by redoubling his efforts to use fake names and other techniques so his e-mail cannot be easily traced.

"I have changed the way we mail totally," he said. The spam fighters, he said, "have no idea what I'm mailing. They could never pinpoint it and say this is from Al Ralsky.

"Is putting bogus information in your registrations the right way to do business?" he asked. "No. But the Internet world has forced me to do that."

Even before the new law was passed and the prosecutors stepped up their actions, Ralsky said the business was getting harder. It was taking more mail to get the same response. (His target is to earn $500 in profit for every 1 million e-mails sent. His commission is often 40 percent of the price of each product sold.) And the cost of his carefully arranged international network is going up, even more so now.

For all the obstacles, though, Ralsky said that he does not intend to stop sending bulk e-mail in some form.

"There is too much money involved," he said. "I'm a survivor. And when you are a survivor, you find a way to make it happen."

The New York Times

Related URLs

Link to full NY Times story at the International Herald Tribune from onlinesecurity.com


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