Q: I’ve been getting the weirdest spam lately—mortgage pitches that have my home address in the subject line! Does that mean these folks are legit, or are the spammers just getting a lot more clever about trying to con me?
Definitely the latter. The personalization tactic is a testament not only to the industry’s ingenuity, but to the seemingly inevitable erosion of online privacy. Remember that Web form you filled out to download Tetris back in 2001? That data’s been sold and resold a dozen times since, and there’s a good chance that’s how the spammers got a fix on your meatspace location.
At first glance, the mortgage spam you forwarded seems more official than your run-of-the-mill “Fwd: FDA-Approved All orders filled yeulycwgzlmk” pitch—hey, at least it includes a snail mail address in Austin, Texas. (Remember that town, folks.) But as Mr. Roboto traced the spam backward, things got pretty cloudy, pretty quick. This particular company calls itself American Loan Rate, and the spam is slugged with your address and the phrase “Loan Registration.” Follow “Click Here for the Lowest Interest Rate,” and you wind up on a page asking for your credit rating, your home’s current value, and a boatload of other sensitive financial data. Click “Submit,” and you’re pleasantly informed that “a representative will contact you shortly!”
Sike! It’s all a trick to snag your data, which is in turn sold to the highest direct-marketing bidder. That’s a scam the Federal Trade Commission has been warning against since early 2003, when it shuttered a Boca Raton–based company called 30 Minute Mortgage. That spammer sent out millions of e-mails per week, offering 30-year, 3.95 percent loans, and then pointed clickers to a financial questionnaire almost identical to the one used by American Loan Rate.
The domain name listed in the header of the American Loan Rate spam is showertree.biz, registered to one Steve Goudreault. The company’s address is a mail drop in a Reno shopping-and-office complex. The phone number clicked dead when Mr. Roboto called.
It turns out American Loan Rate isn’t Goudreault’s only “company.” (Mr. Roboto uses the cheeky quote marks because American Loan Rate isn’t actually registered with Nevada’s secretary of state.) He’s also got Financial Mortgage Center and a zillion others. He’s listed as having a leadplex.com address in a domain-name registration for a company called PayPerAction. LeadPlex, in turn, is registered as a Nevada corporation. Funny, but leadplex.com doesn’t mention that fact—it says it’s “an innovator in providing direct-response solutions” based in San Diego, despite listing an Austin office suite as its address. Yes, Austin—coincidence, mein freund?
According to Nevada incorporation documents, LeadPlex’s president is a man named Mark Trotter, who is also listed as a “manager or member” of a company called Ocean Trails Marketing. And Ocean Trails is notorious among anti-spammers for fronting registrations for Empire Towers, the nation’s third most prolific spamming enterprise, according to the consumer group Spamhaus Project. (Check out Empire Towers’ sordid tale at toledocybercafe.com/ivtg.)
Needless to say, Goudreault didn’t return phone calls placed to LeadPlex’s Austin suite or to his cell phone. Then again, why would he? Suffice to say, the old adage holds true: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. And let Mr. Roboto add this digital-era corollary: If the person who wants your money won’t return phone calls, steer way clear.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project just published a survey of peer-to-peer users, and the news is bad for KaZaA: It has lost close to 6 million users over the past year. Sure, iTunes and the RIAA lawsuits played a role, but what about the software’s nasty, nasty spyware? If you’re looking to join the ranks of ex–KaZaA users, but you’d still like to fiddle with some file sharing, pay a visit to zeropaid.com and check out some spyware-free options. And while you’re there, support the site by plunking down $10 for a Zeropaid beanie.
This column marks Mr. Roboto’s cubic-zirconium anniversary—that’s 100 columns down. Help your favorite cybernetic guide celebrate in the most altruistic way possible: by visiting en.wikipedia.org and contributing an article or two to the Web’s favorite open-source encyclopedia. The entry for Mr. Roboto is looking a little scrawny. Hint, hint.