Being a technology reporter, my email inbox is a crowded place.
It's stuffed with press releases, notices from mailing lists I subscribe to, invitations to events -- you name it, it's in there. Luckily, it's relatively free of spam. Although, occasionally, a few manage to slip by our Postini filter.
If it translates out to some minor law or some major law is broken, then fine. But I feel, in the grand scheme of things, I am doing a service to this city, this [customer] and myself
But within the last month, two messages made it past the goalie, catching my attention. Neither was relevant to my work.
One was a pitch for sports tickets for Chicago teams; the other advertised a vacant plot of land for sale in Naples, Florida. They piqued my curiosity: Why did I get this? Who sent the messages?
The "why," of course, was obvious: They want my money, like innumerable other people who send unsolicited email, a problem that's choking mail servers in addition to fuelling an unprecedented amount of fraud on the internet.
Both messages listed real people with real phone numbers in the US. So, I did what a journalist does: I picked up the phone and called.
Don McCauley is a Chicago-based recruiter who sells tickets for teams such as the Chicago Bears football team and Cubs and White Sox baseball teams. His pitch offered tickets without fees or shipping charges.
I haven't been to Chicago in more than two years and am not planning to go there. I've never used McCauley's services before, and I know I haven't opted in for any sports-related email lists on my work address. In fact, I'm not a huge baseball or US football fan.
I called McCauley and asked him how he got my address. "I believe I found your email address just through my normal research," McCauley said. "I call it harvesting emails."
I explained I hadn't opted in to receive this kind of email, and it was all a bit baffling to me. I told him I considered it spam.
McCauley said he had discovered some "very cool techniques" for finding email addresses, such as taking email addresses from brochures for conferences in Chicago. I told him those email addresses aren't intended to be used for unrelated marketing, and the practice may well violate the laws against spam.
He wasn't able to tell me exactly how he obtained my address (it can be easily scraped from several websites) or why I was targeted.
As the interview progressed, McCauley said he doesn't understand why people "think their email address is the Holy Grail of contact information." He said he includes his phone number and address at the end of the email and will unsubscribe people from his mailings.
In fact, someone else recently had the same idea I had. McCauley said he received a voice mail from a woman who wanted to be unsubscribed and was just as surprised as I was to actually be able to reach a live person. He also indicated he had received more aggressive complaints about his emails.
He justifies the practice because he gets some positive responses: "The people I have emailed are very happy to have received my messages. They far outweigh the ones that don't. I'm not selling Viagra. I'm not selling penis enlargement. I don't sell kiddie porn."
But why does he continue to do it?
"I don't think I'm breaking too many rules," McCauley said. "I'm never fearful of [repercussions from] anyone via email. I don't think I'm much different than the television commercial or the ad that's in the newspaper.
"If it translates out to some minor law or some major law is broken, then fine. But I feel, in the grand scheme of things, I am doing a service to this city, this [customer] and myself," McCauley said.