Page last updated at 15:04 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

How I helped nail the 'manhood' spammer

Two years ago Radio 4 reporter Simon Cox wrote in the Magazine about how he had traced the mastermind of an e-mail spamming scam. It signalled the start of a legal case which has just seen the spammer ordered to pay a huge fine.

Manster pills
$70 a jar - the Manster pill

It all started with a bottle of pills. They were the colour of bluebottles and as big as beetles. In December 2007 I ordered the "Manster" pills from the Elite Herbal Website - advertised in an e-mail for their penis enlargement qualities.

I paid $70 for the promise of "new exciting horizons of sensual pleasure". I wanted to find the spammers who plague our inboxes with unwanted e-mails and Elite Herbal was the ideal place to start.

As well as Manster the site sold everything from diet pills to herbal Viagra and was part of the world's biggest spamming operation. Finding the men who ran it wasn't going to be easy.

I decided to follow the money trail. After various dead ends I managed to track a computer monitoring Elite Herbal orders to an IP address [a unique code ascribed to each computer on the internet] in Christchurch in New Zealand.

It belonged to Shane Atkinson.

When I called him he denied sending any spam e-mails: "It wasn't me mate, we closed all that down years ago. I'm not controlling any computers, mate."

Shane and his brother Lance were well known spammers who ran a global operation with another man, Jody Smith, in the US. For years they had exploited the lack of anti-spamming legislation in New Zealand but the country had recently brought in new laws and the authorities were determined to shut down Elite Herbal.

Planned raid

E-mails subsequently shown to me by law enforcement sources showed that shortly after my phone call Shane Atkinson had contacted his suppliers in India asking what was going on.

Superscam

I had already been in touch with them and they also wanted to know why a BBC journalist was asking awkward questions.

New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs had been planning to raid Atkinson's house in early 2008 but following my phone call they were forced to act.

They raided Shane's house in December and took away his computers. It meant officers working over the holiday. As one later told me I wasn't their favourite journalist.

To make matters worse, the case led to headlines in New Zealand asking why a British reporter had got to Atkinson before the police.

One memorable interview with a radio station in Auckland began with the question "Why are the police here so crap?"

You don't get that kind of question from John Humphrys, so I fudged a reply and wrapped it up as quickly as I could.

It wasn't long before New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs got in touch. In early 2008 I received an e-mail asking if I could provide any material for the investigation into Shane Atkinson and the Elite Herbal spamming operation?

An affidavit followed asking for as much information as possible. Not surprisingly BBC producer Richard Vadon and I declined to hand over anything that would reveal any sources but after lengthy conversations with lawyers and the BBC's policy advisers, we did give them some material which had already been in the programme.

£150,000 a month

For several months everything went quiet. I assumed my spam adventure was over. Apart that is from the scores of spam e-mails I was still getting every day.

Spam example
Still going strong - recent contents of a spam filter

Then in the autumn of 2008 two officers from New Zealand's anti-spam unit flew over to visit me.

Atkinson was refusing to plead guilty and they wanted to know if I would testify should the case come to court. I agreed, in principle uneasy at the prospect of appearing in the witness box. All of this for a civil case, which at the most would mean Atkinson getting a fine.

In June, my police contact told me to put a date aside in my diary for late 2009 to fly to New Zealand as Shane was still intending to go to court.

Luckily I didn't have to make the trip. Shane fell on his sword and agreed to pay a fine to settle his case. It cost him NZ$100,000 (approx £60,000). It was the same amount his brother Lance agreed to earlier in the year.

Not much when you consider one law enforcement official told me it was estimated the gang was making about £150,000 a month.

The Federal Trade Commission in America was also on the case. They were targeting Lance and the man running the US end of the operation, Jody Smith. Earlier this week the FTC announced Smith would turn over nearly all his assets.

They also imposed a $15m fine on Lance Atkinson. It sounded impressive but Lance had already been given a $2.2m fine by the FTC in 2005. As he was living in Australia the US authorities couldn't force him to pay. Unless he is planning a trip to Disneyland the fine will remain a largely symbolic gesture.

The Elite Herbal website is no more. It has been replaced by another. Are Shane and Lance Atkinson still running spam e-mail operations? The authorities don't think so, as they are keeping an eye on them. Filters are getting better at blocking out spam but with 120 billion sent each day you only need a tiny percentage of buyers to make some serious money.

And what of the Manster pills. I was tempted to try one, for research purposes obviously. My producer, Richard, wanted me to but he was over-ruled by a far greater power - my wife.



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