First Person: Berthold Metz

Junk e-mails have always fascinated me. They show the underbelly of human wants and needs. I was talking about this with a friend on New Year’s eve 2006 and wondered how many junk e-mails I would get if I tried to attract rather than deflect them. My estimate was maybe 500,000 within a year. The next day, I decided to test this prediction and began my quest to become the world’s most-spammed person.

First, I created some e-mail accounts that I would use only for spam. Then, I googled for porn, lottery and poker websites and registered my e-mail addresses wherever I could. I subscribed to newsletters and then unsubscribed. I found dubious-looking contact forms and became a member of several dating websites.

The first e-mail came after four days. A person called Meredith Crum wrote to say that I was “approved” and could earn an additional $400 to $600 a month. I clicked on the link attached. You should always click on the attached links if you want to increase your spam – it shows the spammers that you exist.

Things started slowly. At the end of the first week, I had three junk e-mails in total. In my second week, I received nine and in my third week, 14 e-mails. It took six weeks to reach 100. In my 40th week I got more than 1,000 e-mails on my most successful account.

It has been estimated that 95 per cent of all e-mails sent are spam. I’m sure that’s true, but normal users like me see only a fraction of it – spam filters do a pretty good job. For spammers, the most important thing is to trick the filter and make sure the spam reaches the inbox.

As a result, the messages are sometimes totally distorted. I’ve seen words such as “vvvvvvvidshfsfaaaaakfhdsfdsgggra” or “V___AA_ff_G__R_((A”. Sometimes, spammers don’t even mention the product they claim to sell. Some spammers copy and paste passages from Hermann Hesse or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to fool the filter programs. It’s a ruse I’m particularly fond of. I studied literature, after all.

In the beginning, I read every junk e-mail I received, but I soon realised how repetitive they are. Most spammers promote counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Occasionally I got a “market expert” telling me she could influence stock market prices. One of the most ridiculous was a coupon for a free sample of Botox spray. You had to print it out and send it in to claim the sample. But the small print said the deal was only valid online, so there was no postal address.

My e-mail traffic grew steadily, and at the end of the first year I had received a total of 50,927 spam e-mails. Early on, I calculated that I would receive 100 million junk e-mails within 15 years. At first I thought I was on track for that goal, but I have suffered some setbacks. For example, occasionally the authorities close down an important spam server. Sometimes traffic decreases for no apparent reason. And I’ve discovered that an e-mail address that contains the word “spam” receives almost no junk e-mails. Even spammers are suspicious of spam.

Over the years, I have experimented with different ways to boost my traffic. I engaged in an e-mail conversation with a spammer. I used websites to generate junk mail. But these measures worked only to a certain extent. In more than three years, my most successful account has received only about 260,000 e-mails.

In this respect, my project is a failure. But it’s also a success. I haven’t done anything to boost my spam recently, but I still receive thousands of e-mails a day. I’ve created a golem [figure of Jewish legend] that will continue to live, no matter what I do. Books get burnt and websites disappear, but my e-mail accounts continue to get spammed. Even if I shut them down, they would survive in the lists the spammers use. It’s my own form of immortality.

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