Some see them as a joke, a few even take them at their word, but to most of us spam e-mails that promise to "enlarge your manhood" have become an everyday pest. Simon Cox, of Radio 4's the Investigation, set out to discover who is behind them.
Would you like your penis enlarged? It is a question I get asked a lot.
Not by women, thankfully, but in the e-mails I receive every morning. For just $70, I could open up "new exciting horizons of sensual pleasure" and put an end to "being shy of [my] manhood in the showers".
If it was only me, I might develop a complex. But billions of these junk e-mails are being sent out advertising the wonders of Manster, herbal pills that guarantee to add "intimate inches".
A similar strain of spam extols the virtues of "herbal Viagra" or "miracle breast improvement" products.
It would be tempting to think no-one responded to such offers. Quite the opposite, says Brian McWilliams, who managed to access the file directory of a spammers' website.
"There were orders from veterinarians and doctors," says Mr McWilliams, author of Spam Kings, "... people who I think would be sophisticated and unlikely to want to give out their credit card number to a website that had no contact information".
In a bid to track down the elusive figures sending me these spam e-mails, I had to try to buy the product. I clicked on a link in one of the e-mails, which led to an Elite Herbal website.
Elite Herbal is the biggest spammer of them all, says Richard Cox of the internet monitoring organisation Spamhaus.
"They are probably one of the most intense spam operations on the internet today," says Mr Cox, who calls them an "absolute pest".
Trail to India
But trying to isolate the Elite Herbal spammers came to a dead end. The e-mail had been sent by woman at a library in Florida. A quick call revealed she didn't exist.
The e-mails are sent from computers that have been hijacked and infected
The website had been registered in China but with fake contact information. We even tried to trace the actual computer used to send the e-mail.
But that's a lost cause, says Mark Harris, of IT security firm, Sophos Labs.
Its computer engineers work 24/7 battling with spammers, and can track in real time the location of machines spewing out spam. Mostly though, the offending computers have been hijacked, unbeknown to their owners.
Spammers are adept at hiding, and while Sophos can help block the spam e-mails it can't get to the root of the problem.
So instead, I decided to follow the money. My credit card payment for the Manster pills had been processed by a website based in India that was connected to a company that sold herbal products via so called "affiliates".
These are the sales people scattered across the globe working on commission. The suspicion is that often they are the spammers.
During the research for his book Mr McWilliams posed as an affiliate and signed up to send some spam for a man selling fake Rolex watches.
New Zealand link
"He maintained the website, he was responsible for shipping out the orders," says Mr McWilliams. "What I did was I brought him customers and I could do that however I wanted and obviously I did it through spam".
The warnings are out there for the gullible
The company can do everything for the spammer, helping them with their web presence, processing payments and shipping the goods. But they are not doing the spamming, so can deny all knowledge of it.
We weren't the only people on the trail of Elite Herbal. Henrik Uffe Jensen, an IT consultant from Denmark had also been plagued by their e-mails. So he turned the tables on them, setting a trap by placing request for pills, but hid a code in the order form.
This allowed him to see the location and the unique IP address of the internet user accessing his order. Henrik noticed one of the computers tracking his order was in New Zealand.
We found out the computer was in the south island of New Zealand. We also knew Vodafone was providing its internet service. We contacted Vodafone and after some checks they confirmed it was the spammer.
"The customer was sending the spam but not directly from his account," says a spokesman for Vodafone. "He 'hid' behind a number of other slave or zombie computers, making identifying his activities somewhat more difficult".
The pills arrive
We knew where the alleged spammer lived and it didn't take long for us to find out his name. He denied the claims when contacted and the matter is now being dealt with by authorities in New Zealand.
Two weeks after I placed my order a brown envelope arrived from India. Inside was a bottle of Manster pills and the promise of a month's worth of enhanced sexual performance - although there is no mention of penis enlargement.
I sent the list of herbal ingredients to David Schardt, a senior Nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington DC.
He couldn't find any evidence to show that most of the ingredients would have any effect. What had cost me £35, he said, I could pick up for 50p in India.
Having made my purchase I am the spammers' favourite friend. Each morning there are now huge numbers of junk emails getting past my spam filter. The technology to stop spam is getting more sophisticated but so are the spammers. In the end there is only one way we can end spam - stop buying their products.
The Investigation is broadcast on Radio 4 on Thursday, 13 December at 2000 GMT and afterwards the podcast is available for download here.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
It should be illegal to buy from spammers.
Alex May, London, England
Why don't Visa and MasterCard get together to put an end to spamming. If they decided to withdraw credit card processing from any Company selling via spammers (whether intentionally or inadvertently) it would stop 90% of spam overnight. There is a precedent when they stopped agreeing to process credit cards for gambling sites in the USA.
While we're at it, why can't the various Stock Exchanges suspend trading of shares for, say, 7 days of Companies being 'ramped' by spamming. Even if the companies are not involved directly it creates a false market and suspension would be in every-one's interest.
The only way to stop spammers is government intervention. But governments fear such "precedent" of interference in laissez-faire capitalism.
Good article and for once it comes to the right conclusion, but it is not strong enough. When you buy their products, you are not only opening yourself up to more spam but you are encouraging them to send spam to others. The economics of spam are that they only need one hit in 1000 or more to make it pay. Therefore, everytime you show any interest whatsoever in their product, you are enabling the spammers to jusitfy sending mail to thousands of other people. To hear that vets, doctors and other people that should really know better are responding to this rubbish is just depressing.
Steve Green, Ottawa, Canada
A simple solution would be a nominal "tax" on email messages....say 0.5 cents per message charged to the IP provider. These spammers that send out tens of millions of emails would then have to pay their IP provider thousands of dollars for every mailing ($50,000 for 10 million messages.....The cost to the rest of us would be negligible.
At least it would eat into thier profit margins.
GB, Toronto, Canada
To Tony of London, it is very easy to get around the restrictions in the US on gambling websites, so I don't see that it would accomplish all that much. Still, it couldn't hurt. At least then those buying from spammers would have to jump through one extra hoop, and it might make them think twice.
James Sweet, Rochester, NY, USA
The best way to stop spammers is for everybody to stop buying things from them. Why do people send spam or junk mail? Because they know some people will actually buy their product (fake or not). They know some people will actually fall for their sales pitch. They may only get 1% responses to spam but that's enough for them to make money to keep doing it. People need to be educated about spam, but unfortunately, there are millions of stupid internet users out there who still click on spam.
People are gullible enough to fall for that?
My 13 year old brother knows a spam email when he sees one.
Sophie, Belfast, Ireland
I think that most normal law abiding pacificist people would find it hard not to physically assault a spammer if they had got them face to face. The amount of time loss and aggravation they cause in everyone's life is good enough to use legislation to stop and punish them. Between that, ISP controls, credit card companies and buyer penalties it should kill it and we could all get on with our lives.
Patrick j., leitrim, Ireland
I rarely buy online but do so only from a few select sites using an email address no spammer could know. I always tick the boxes declining any marketing spam from either the website itself or any of their "selected" partners. Yet I am still bombared by spam from random companies. When I ask them where they got my details from they refuse to tell me. I am sure websites totally ignore requests not to sell your details on to spammers but there is just no way of knowing who it is!
John, Witney, Oxfordshire
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