Who Is Really Behind The Rogue Dialer Scams?

A tip from a reader (thanks, James) indicates we’re back on the trail of the rogue dialers. (Rogue dialers are pieces of software usually downloaded without the user’s knowledge, which then disconnect existing Internet connections and dial fresh connections via high-cost usually international numbers. The user doesn’t know much about it until the monthly phone bill arrives with a hefty jump.) A piece on TheWMURChannel (via AP) says Missouri’s attorney general has filed suit against a New Hampshire man, Michael Walczak,  and his businesses —  Phoenix One Billing LLC and National One Telecom Inc — accusing him “of charging Missourians for accessing pornographic Web sites they never visited”:

The suit accuses Walczak of demanding payment from at least 59 Missouri customers for long-distance calls to foreign countries that weren’t made and for accessing pay-per-view adult Web sites. Nixon said it appeared the charges sometimes came from auto-dialing software installed on people’s computers without their knowledge.

Walczak is accused of deception, fraud and unfair trade practices. Nixon wants the Jackson County Circuit Court to order the people wrongly charged be paid back, to block Walczak from engaging in unfair trade practices and to impose a fine of $1,000 per violation.

Walczak doesn’t sound like a big fish, although National One, one of the companies he is allegedly involved in, did catch some big ones. This article in the Union Leader describes him thus (go here for the full piece; the January original has been archived):

Walczak is a 2000 graduate from Manchester West High School and uses his parent’s Horizon Drive address in Bedford as his business address. He graduated from Daniel Webster College last year with a degree in information systems. John Zahr, a class officer of the West 2000 class, said Walczak was a smart kid who took advanced-level classes. “All I could really tell you, without trying to sound too harsh, was that he was perceived as your stereotypical high school ‘nerd,’ if you will,” Zahr said in an e-mail message.

In other words, if this account is correct, he’s barely into his 20s. Someone of his name is also behind this website, Candid Publishing, based in the same area, with the following DNS registration data:

 Walczak, M. webmaster@candidpublishing.com
 PO BOX 10007
 Bedford, NH 03110
 US
 1-866-422-6343

Different postbox, but same ZIP as Phoenix One Billing. And the company name happens to be the name by which National One Telecom’s DNS is registered. Candid Publishing’s website has nothing on it, but it looks cool, and promises services including “traffic auditing”. But it does seem to have been around a while: the Walczak of Candid Publishing has been using that company name since at least 2000. Oh, and there’s an interesting exchange here on the Tech Support Guy forums between angry users and a National One Telecom “customer service manager“. It’s more than a year old but entertaining and may shed some light on what this is all about. Could this particular scam have been dreamed up and carried out by small fry?

Who Are The White Knights In The War On Spam?

I know this appallingly cynical of me, but I can’t help worrying about the most recent development in the War On Spam. That, in case you hadn’t heard, is the news of a ‘fighting cooperative’ as Jupiter Research’s Microsoft Monitor puts it, between Microsoft and New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who have together filed lawsuits against alleged spammers Synergy6 and Scott Richter, among others. Spitzer was one of the key players in the government’s five-year antitrust case against Microsoft.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s good that someone’s going after spammers. And they may well have the right guys. Spamhaus has Richter high up on its list of top spammers, and Spitzer described him as the third largest spammer in the world, delivering 250 million spam e-mails per day. And having Microsoft onside definitely has its rewards: As part of a six-month investigation, Microsoft set up honey traps, capturing 8,000 spam mails in one month containing, according to Spitzer, “40,000 false statements.” New York State will seek $500 in damages for each false statement. Microsoft’s lawsuits, filed in Washington State, seek more than $18 million in damages.

But while Jupiter and others focus on the positive aspects of Microsoft’s improving relations with the government, what exactly is Micosoft doing sueing spammers? While they have the technical muscle to help catch the spammer, (and this is not the first time they’ve gone after spammers in the courts, as TechDirt points out), my suspicion is that spammers are being pursued not because they’re a nuisance to us users, but because they’re getting in the way of making the web a marketers’ dream playground.

Spam is hell for the inbox and is giving a bad name to all forms of e-marketing. That’s bad for us, but more importantly it’s bad for big business, as Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith explains: “Deceptive and illegal spam, like the kind we’re attacking today, is overwhelming legitimate e-mail and threatening the promise and potential of the Internet for all of us. We appreciate the attorney general’s leadership on what is arguably the biggest technology menace consumers are facing. Together we are stepping up efforts to help consumers take control of their inboxes again.”

Indeed, it’s telling that Microsoft has, according to the anti-spamming community, been instrumental in watering down anti-spamming legislation which might have done a more thorough job of stopping junk mail. Of course, I’m not defending spam. It’s ugly, and getting worse. And Microsoft are improving their spam filtering: Outlook 2003 has it, and they just upgraded it again yesterday.

But in helping get rid of it we may unwittingly be committing ourselves to a regimented future online, of standards — IDs, Digital Rights Management, microtolls — controlled by the big corporates. Or at the very least, leave the ground free for spam from the mainstream — mainsleaze spam, as California State Senator Debra Bowen put it: “Microsoft doesn’t want to ban spam, it wants to decide what’s ‘legitimate’ or ‘acceptable’ unsolicited commercial advertising so it can turn around and license those e-mail messages and charge those advertisers a fee to wheel their spam into your e-mail inbox without your permission.”