You call it spam, they call it a living

It's been almost three months since the Can-Spam Act became official, yet most of us are still getting barraged with e-mail come-ons. The subject lines might be more subtle: "Check this out" instead of "Hot Babes!" for instance, but the number of spam messages hasn't dwindled. In fact, it has increased from 58 percent of e-mails last December to 62 percent last month, despite efforts of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to police the law.

The big four ISPs - AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Earthlink - are also going after more than 200 of this country's slimiest spammers. (It's estimated that there are about 2,000 spammers in the US. There are many more worldwide.)

An even more stunning statistic is this one: About 8 percent of spam recipients actually respond.

And that response rate adds up to big bucks for spammers. As Ronnie Scelson, one of this country's most active spammers puts it: "We would not be doing this if people didn't buy."

Not all unsolicited e-mail is illegal, and the promise of plenty of money spurs legitimate businesspeople to clog e-mail boxes, too. While they see their efforts as good marketing, most recipients think they're still spamming, despite the fact that the companies may follow the letter of the law.

In the field of direct marketing, it doesn't get much cheaper than spam. One needs only a credit card (to buy lists of e-mail addresses), a computer, and an Internet connection. Otherwise, it costs nothing to send bulk e-mail, even masses of it.

The typical spammer might blast out 5 million e-mails daily, selling to only a fraction of recipients. But that's enough. "A response rate of just 1/10th of 1 percent could keep a spammer afloat," says FTC staff attorney Michael Goodman.

Sending out fliers via snail mail, on the other hand, is costly. Traditional direct mailers must also wait longer for responses, and if they make a typo, they can forget about fixing it.

It didn't take long for accountant Laura Betterly to do the math. About 2-1/2 years ago, the single mother from Florida was looking for a lucrative career that would allow her to work at home and spend more time with her two sons, then ages 10 and 11. Ms. Betterly, already a savvy businesswoman, and three friends started a bulk e-mailing business - as she prefers to call it - with $15,000.

Six months later, she had earned nearly $200,000. Today, she employs 20 people, and she's mum about what she makes, but she does reveal that her company hit the $1 million mark last year. She has moved the business out of her home and into a downtown office in Clearwater, Fla. Her sons both attend private school. And she is home for dinner every night with the boys and her new husband.

But the life of a bulk e-mailer is no cakewalk these days. Betterly sends out millions of e-mails every day, yet she calls her product "spam lite" because she does "things differently from other e-mailers." In other words, she explains, she follows the specifics of the new law and refuses to promote any product that wouldn't be appropriate for her 13-year-old son.

The nature of her work is often a conversation stopper - but not always in a negative sense. "Most people imagine a guy in a trailer park smoking a cigarette and beating his wife," she says, laughing. "They are often surprised to find that I can put a sentence together."

Betterly, who was recently invited to speak at a spam forum hosted by the FTC, is a fan of the Can-Spam Act. She is all for cleaning up the industry by banning deceptive subject lines, requiring a real return address, and giving consumers a way to "opt out."

But how do recipients know if her opt-out is legitimate? Most have read that they should never click on an offer to get off the mailing list.

As former spammer Mike Hughes, says, "The worst thing you can do is open spam. It's like opening your front door to a salesman. As soon as they know your e-mail address is active, spammers will blast more."

Betterly considers spamming a matter of free speech. "It's what America was built on," she says. "Small business owners have a right to direct marketing."

Betterly thinks that when done right, bulk e-mailing can be a terrific boon to the entrepreneur.

She cites the example of a 70-year-old man who wrote a book about improving one's billiards game. He approached Betterly, she sent out millions of e-mails promoting his book, and now he supplements his Social Security income with the profits. He's also made friends with some of his customers.

"It's a win-win situation," she says, although few of those with clogged e-mail boxes would agree.

Among Betterly's other clients are a distributor of alligator meat, an owner of Texas ranch land, and a debt negotiation company (not "consolidation" - a distinction she makes clear).

Betterly is paid in various ways. She charges one fee for every 1 million e-mails she sends. That fee can range from $600 to $1,000, depending on whether the promotion is targeted to a specific location or demographic. She then charges about half that amount for each additional million e-mails sent. "It's always cheaper to just buy 10 million e-mails from the start," she says. Finally, she is paid again for the number of leads her e-mails generate.

On a typical day, Betterly's firm might send out 8 million pieces of spam for more than 10 different clients. If 100 people respond, she'll do just fine.

Betterly no longer sends bulk e-mail to anyone with a Yahoo address. Yahoo and a few other ISPs filter too well, she says, so she doesn't get much response.

Betterly might be "spam lite," as she says, but its all spam to these gatekeepers. And as long as unsolicited mail continues to clog their systems and annoy their customers, they plan to fight back.

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