A reporter's revenge against spam

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Two years ago, the BBC's Simon Cox tracked down one of the world's most notorious spammers. Then, Cox became part of the story in ways he never imagined. Anchor Marco Werman has an update.

MARCO WERMAN: If soccer doesn't enflame your passions, here's a topic that will: spam emails. Have you ever wanted to track down the person responsible for clogging your inbox with junk mail? You know, get them on the line, and give them a hard time? Well, two years ago, BBC reporter Simon Cox did just that. He was working on a report on spam and where it comes from. For starters, he actually responded to a piece of spam he'd received.

SIMON COX: I had bought a product known as Manster, basically a kind of form of herbal Viagra. They duly arrived a couple of weeks later, and then essentially what I did was, I followed the money trail, trying to find who was actually sending me that spam.

WERMAN: Cox contacted the company in India that shipped him the little blue pills. They weren't sending the emails, though; someone else was. Eventually, Cox was able to track the spam down to an Internet address in New Zealand. That address belonged to Shane Atkinson. He and his brother Lance Atkinson were already well-known to the global anti-spam community, so well-known that Shane's phone number was publicly listed on an anti-spam website. Cox dialed him up.

COX: I was just ringing to tell you that we've got some quite serious allegations to make about you, basically, that you've been the one who's been sending spam emails to us.

SHANE ATKINSON: Well, it wasn't me, mate. We've closed all that down years ago. I'm not interested in talking to you. Bye.

WERMAN: Shane Atkinson may not have been in the mood to talk, but New Zealand authorities were. They were already tracking the case. And in the wake of Cox's report, they raided Atkinson's house and took his computers. After some months of investigation, they filed a civil suit against Atkinson. Then they contacted the BBC's Simon Cox and his producer.

COX: They asked us for information that we may have had. We gave them some that was material that was actually in the program. And then they said, "Well, you'd better get ready to pack your cases, because if Shane decides to go to a full trial, you'll have to come down to New Zealand and testify as a prosecution witness," which you're never that keen to be doing as a journalist. You like to be on the sidelines in a sense.

WERMAN: Simon Cox got lucky. He never had to go to New Zealand. Early this year, Lance Atkinson agreed to pay around $100,000 dollars to settle the case. Not long ago, Shane Atkinson did the same. It's a slap on the wrist, considering that the brothers were allegedly making some $250,000 a month through their spamming operation. We should note, the US Federal Trade Commission has gotten involved. They slapped a $15 million fine on one of the brothers, but the FTC's jurisdiction is limited. So unless Lance Atkinson decides to visit the US, the punishment will remain symbolic. Meanwhile, an American member of the Atkinson's spam operation is facing his own fines, and possibly even some jail time. Small victories, says the BBC's Simon Cox.

COX: It's worth remembering that on average, around 120 billion spam emails are sent every day. A lot of those will be blocked by filters, but I'm getting dozens still every day. But that's probably because I foolishly went and bought one of the products.

WERMAN: You can hear more from BBC reporter Simon Cox, including our original interview with him, in our weekly Technology Podcast. Just visit The World dot org to listen, or subscribe.