Editor's note: Some of the language in this article may be considered explicit.
What if every day in your neighborhood, this happens: The doorbell rings, you go to answer it, but there’s no one there. Yet on the doorstep you find X-rated leaflets. You didn’t order it, didn’t pay for it, or subscribe to it. Still there it is — every day, week after week.
And what if your kids answer the door? Now it’s your kids who might see these pictures.
Well something like this is actually happening, but it isn’t outside on the doorstep, it’s inside your house. And the pictures aren’t wrapped up in nice brown paper.
An invasion of unwanted porn
Raw porn is on display on computers all over America whenever people open their e-mail.
Julie, a mother from suburban Texas, has had enough. "They just keep on coming," she says.
But Julie got an e-mail one day that topped it all — one that showed sex with animals.
This porn invasion is legal. The sleazy senders are anonymous and they could be anywhere on the globe. But why would anyone want to send free porn to people who haven’t asked for it?
Simple: These are free samples sent by someone trying to sell online subscriptions to porn Web sites. Just like Penthouse or Hustler try to sell subscriptions, porn Web sites sell subscriptions too. The idea is to entice you to see more.
But these angry parents don’t want porn subscriptions. And they would love to know who is sending them this stuff.
“Spammers transmit literally billions of e-mail messages a day,” says Ray Everett Church, a full-time spam fighter. He runs a coalition that’s fighting for laws to protect consumers from the spamming industry, which takes in according to some estimates, more than $20 billion a year — though not all from porn. And it’s an industry that’s almost totally unregulated.
“What we are seeing today is very much the Wild West, the wild frontier where the laws just aren’t there yet to catch up to what all of the bad guys are doing to make money,” says Church.
If a porn spammer is based in the United States, all he has to do is write the phrase “sexually explicit” on the mail and it’s all perfectly legal. Problem is, many spammers are outside the United States. American laws can’t touch them.
And if you wanted to get the name of the person sending you the offensive e-mails and pictures, you can’t just call your Internet provider because privacy laws restrict them from giving you that information.
“The same rules that protect my personal information and yours at that service provider also protects a potential spammer or pornographer,” says Everett Church.
But if the government can’t go after all the spammers, what if someone who got one of the e-mails wanted to find one of them and stop him? What are the odds?
“If you can find the real person without an army of lawyers, without millions of dollars of research staff and investigators, if you could find the individual who actually clicked that mouse and sent that message — it would be a sight to see,” says Everett Church.
Could we could find them? Unmask them? Drag them out from the anonymity of cyberspace, and find them wherever they are, in any corner of the world? Could we actually get one of these people to take responsibility for sending this stuff?
This sounds like a mission for a Dateline Hidden Camera Investigation. Undercover and going with our gut, we’ll follow the trail until we literally return to sender.
We thought the stuff Julie in Texas got was the worst of the worst, so we decided to see if we could figure out, step by step, who pressed the send key.
Right off the bat, we know this isn’t going to be easy. The e-mail itself says the sender’s name is Nastassja Kinski — could they mean actress Nastassja Kinski? We clicked on the e-mail and we’re attacked by pornographic popups. We wade through those, dig a little deeper — we find a list of real names and addresses. These people are called “custodians of record.” We have no idea what a “custodian of record” is. These are real names.
One of the "custodians of record" is named "Rosebush." He's on 7th Avenue in New York, a stone's throw away from NBC. He's in a tiny corner in the same building as Carnegie Hall, the hallowed home of highbrow.
Porn records in Carnegie Hall?
With hidden cameras rolling, we went down a long corridor past rehearsal studios and cello teachers, where we found Judson Rosebush.
John Hockenberry: Hi. Judson?
Hockenberry: Judson Rosebush?
Hockenberry: Hi, I’m John. I just want to ask you a couple of questions, do you mind if we come in?
Judson: I do.
Hockenberry: OK, we'll talk out here in the hallway. First, what is your job? What's a custodian of records?
Judson: I hold model releases, proofs of age, contracts and licenses...
He admits he's in the porn Web site business somehow, but he says he was hired by the explicit porn site to keep records that prove that naked girls are at least 18 years old.
Hockenberry: Do you think you’d be more comfortable discussing this not in the hallway?
Judson: Who are you and why are you asking me these questions?
So, we tell him about Julie and her disturbing women and animal pictures.
Judson: We don’t know who is sending those things, and a lot of those are occurring offshore. I am not involved in the distribution of this material. I am merely a keeper of records.
Okay, how about the names of the people who hired him to keep those records?
Judson: I dont believe it’s my business responsibility to share information with you about who I do business with.
So nothing from Judson, so we head back to the computer, back to the "Spunkfarm" e-mail.
What if we could find the Web site owner? There has to be one — like Larry Flynt owns Hustler.
Sadly, no owners are listed on the Web site itself, but Web sites have to be registered, kind of like a car has to be registered. And we found the place that keeps those registrations.
We were told that "Spunkfarm" was associated with a company in Toronto, Canada.
Whoever sent Julie those pictures is in a nice place like Toronto?
A trail through Toronto, Canada
We’ve connected "Spunkfarm" to a company up in Toronto, Canada. Maybe someone there can help us. A company called “Global Media Resources.” registered the name "Spunkfarm."
We arrive at the address. It’s a postal drop — just a little mailbox. It seems like a dead end. But when we go back to our computer we find there’s another Toronto company affiliated with "Spunkfarm." This one is called “Python,” and there’s even an address. Maybe the porn mailer is there.
We go to the location, not a mail drop. But it certainly doesn’t look like an office. The space was going to be a Middle Eastern restaurant. Another dead end.
There is one place in Toronto that might help us: It’s called Tucows. That’s the place that registers those Web site names. It’s what led us to Toronto to begin with.
The receptionist is happy to look up the name "Spunkfarm" for us. We get another address—this one very nearby.
We discover that down these dingy alleys of old industrial buildings, and a man on the street tells us that the whole area here is all dot-coms. “Mostly, mostly porn though,” he adds.
We're at Toronto’s Internet porn district. The man takes us around back to the freight elevator and gives an idea what goes on inside this building. There are more companies that seem to see porn within the building.
At this point, no one knows we are with "Dateline" or that we’re wearing hidden cameras. We find the building and start asking questions:
Hockenberry: We’re trying to figure out what the source of a Web site called "Spunkfarm" is. You know anything about that?
Dan: I’d like you to talk to my CTO. I have no idea who you are. I can’t talk about our company operations. I’m not in a position. But I can put you with someone who can give you all the answers.
Hockenberry: OK, fine, yeah.
Dan: I just don’t know who you are, sorry.
Hockenberry: My name is John.
Dan: It gives me no context.
Dan: I’m the director of information technology. I run the data center...
Dan: You’re asking me questions about our sites and our sites are viewed ‘controversial’ by some people. And I have no idea who you are, you could be an activist, you could be anyone. So I prefer if you speak to someone else.
Hockenberry: OK, OK....
By now they’re getting a little suspicious. Dan takes us to see his colleague.
Hockenberry: Dan said we could ask you some questions about some sites that may be associated with you guys?
So we tell him about Julie and her "Spunkfarm" problem.
Hockenberry: Where is that coming from? Here?
Burry: It wouldn’t be coming from here.
He explains that this place simply helps Web sites connect to the Internet. Web site owners can pay them a fee, the way the phone company is paid to wire phones to the outside world.
They say they have nothing to do with making porn, or sending porn spam e-mails. But they do seem to know a little more about how the Internet porn business works. They told us regardless of who actually makes "Spunkfarm," anyone can sell it. In fact, independent sales people sell subscriptions to the site on a commission basis.
They’re not supposed to spam the porn to people who don’t want it, but some obviously do.
But would it be possible to identify the salesman who sent Julie those free samples of "Spunkfarm"?
Richard Burry says each salesperson has a code, an ID number that would mean nothing to a customer, but it’s the only way a spammer gets paid for selling subscriptions.
Burry: From the code that’s in the e-mail we can tell by the codes who sent it.
The code is like a salesman's fingerprint... but even if we had it, they say our chances of finding whoever sent the e-mail to Julie are slim to none.
Burry: They change where it’s coming from. They change the IP addresses of where it’s being sent from.
Burry: They’ll sign up with fake names or fake credit cards and so forth. So in essence you can’t really trace where it’s coming from.
But will they help us find the owners of "Spunkfarm" who then might at least try to give us a name for the spammer?
Dan: I would like to invite you at this time to leave the premises. If you do not leave, we’re not going to answer any more questions, and there will be people who will come here and help you leave.
Hockenberry: Sorry - I didn’t mean to...
Dan: That’s alright.
Hockenberry: .. get you upset there, Dan.
Dan: I am. So please leave.
Out we go — but we couldn’t help but notice they didn’t seem all that troubled by the reality of millions of people being blasted with porn.
Dan: I resent the fact that someone’s implying that I am doing something wrong.
Hockenberry: By selling animal pictures?
Dan: It’s just data. Thank you very much.
Hockenberry: It’s just data? Animal sex is just data?
Dan: Now you are being controversial.
Back in New York, we go back to our computers to get the spammer’s ID code the Canadians told us about.
And sure enough in Julie’s e-mail it was there. The number that uniquely identifies the sender and the owners of "Spunkfarm" have to know the name.
But where can we find the folks from "Spunkfarm"?
There’s got to be a place where these Internet porn creators go, some place out in the open where we can just walk up and ask them about the spammer’s ID code. Well there is such a place — a porn convention. And just where you might expect one — Las Vegas.
Internet porn convention in Vegas
Las Vegas is a place not exactly unfamiliar with the flesh trade.
We arrive at the Venetian hotel, setting for the Internet porn industry’s annual convention.
They’re all here — the celebrities, the stars of the porn business. It’s like a furniture convention except these ladies aren’t selling office chairs, they’re selling porn over the Internet. And everyone here is desperate to find clever ways to sell more of porn online. Most will tell you it isn’t ethical to spam — but they admit a lot of porn is sold that way. Spamming captures the eyes of millions of consumers.
And to learn how to get your porn out there onto people’s computer screens, there are even seminars. We find one with a familiar name, someone from the company called Python is on the panel. Remember we went looking for Python at the address that turned out to be a restaurant under construction? The company seems to have a big presence here at the porn convention.
We meet an executive from Python, Ally Drummond. Can I get her to admit on camera that her company owns "Spunkfarm"? Remember we’re wearing hidden cameras and no one knows we’re with "Dateline."
Hockenberry: One of your products that I’m familiar with, "Spunkfarm" — does "Spunkfarm" work? It’s not pretty.
Ally Drummond: When we first launched it, actually. It did.
There, on camera the admission we came here for: Her company Python owns the online porn.
But they’re not the ones who actually send the porn e-mails out. They pay those independent salespeople to drum up subscriptions and they’re the ones who also send out the unwanted spam.
And we were trying to find out exactly which one of them spammed Julie.
Drummond claimed that it’s against company policy to spam Julie or anyone else. And she said if we did have that salesman’s ID code, she could help us find him.
Hockenberry: So based on this number, you can find the spammer and shut them down?
Ally Drummond: We can.
Hockenberry: You can. Would you? Is there someone I could talk to?
Ally Drummond: You’d have to e-mail.
To get the name of our porn spammer, she wants us to e-mail someone back in Canada, she gives us his name: Richard Burry.
That name sounded familiar to us. And we didn’t need to go all the way back to Toronto, it turns out, to find him.
There in the convention hall, right at the Python display, we found a familiar face. Richard Burry was one of the people we met back in Toronto — the one who said we’d never be able to find the spammer who sent Julie the porn.
Remember when we were back in Toronto we thought he was just someone who helped Web sites get connected to the Internet — not a pornographer or a spammer? But now that we’ve found him at a porn convention in Las Vegas, he explains.
Richard Burry: Um, I’m actually with a different company as well, actually, it’s... they’re all different companies ...
Hockenberry: A lot of companies.
Burry: They’re all different companies, yeah.
One of the companies he’s affilliated with is behind "Spunkfarm." And in Las Vegas with him, taking pictures, is Judson Rosebush. The "custodian of records" is a long way from Carnegie Hall.
But by now, they’ve figured out we’re reporters. Still, we now know Burry is connected to "Spunkfarm." And we ask him to identify the person who spammed the porn to Julie in Texas. Burry promises he will.
Soon, we’re escorted out of the convention.
A couple of days later, back in New York, we’re still waiting for Richard to send us the name of the salesmen who spammed Julie.
It shouldn’t be hard — after all, they pay him a commission each time he sells their product.
But now Burry says he’s not so sure he wants to identify that spammer. Burry says he’s afraid giving the guy up would make him look bad. Kind of surprising, since they admit the spammer broke the rules and shouldn’t have sent the stuff to someone who didn’t want it in the first place.
Finally, Burry says he’ll talk to his business partners and get back to us. A week goes by. Nothing. Then, the fax machine rings.
We have a name.
We may finally put a face on the person who sent Julie that porn e-mail. We’re going back to Canada, this time to Montreal.
A face behind the anonymous spammer
Tracing these pictures back to the guy who sent them has been a series of dead ends and chilly receptions. But now, we think we may have him. His name? Jean Yves Cotes.
We get his phone number, and I leave a message saying I want to talk to him about a business proposal.
He thinks we’re in town to talk about the Internet porn business. Later, he calls me back at the hotel and agrees to have lunch. Yves Cote shows up, along with a business partner.
Remember, he thinks we’re here to discuss a business proposition, so we start by talking business. Right off the bat he admits he’s in the business of trying to sell porn by e-mailing millions of people. And he’s happy to tell us we can send porn to millions of people too — simply by purchasing lists of e-mail addresses.
Yves Cote: The people sell the lists on the market.
Hockenberry: And you buy them?
Jean Yves Cote: So can you. (laughs)
Hockenberry: I can?
Jean Yves Cote: Sure.
A list with a couple of million names is considered tiny by Internet standards.
Yves Cote: It’s a small list.
Hockenberry: A small list is 2 million?
Yves Cote: Uh, huh.
Hockenberry: Oh ,for heaven’s sake.
The lists are easy to come by. Some spammers have even developed software that trolls the Internet for e-mail addresses. Somehow Julie’s name ended up on one of those lists.
We show him that image that appeared on Julie’s computer in Texas. It’s return to sender time.
At first, a denial.
Yves Cote: I didn’t send ... okay?
Hockenberry: How do you know if somebody like, wants this...
We know he’s the spammer because the owners of "Spunkfarm" told us they’d identified him through his salesman ID code.
Now he’s wondering about the real reason for our meeting.
Yves-Cote: Can you tell me something?
Hockenberry: Yup, sure.
Yves Cote: Why we have lunch? To speak about the site or to speak about business?
We show him a picture of Julie.
Hockenberry: Her name’s Julie. She’s a housewife, freelance student, lives in Texas.
Then we show him the unsolicited porn the people at "Spunkfarm" said he delivered.
Hockenberry: The "Spunkfarm" e-mail.
Yves Cote (to Daniel): Okay. We are not here for business.
Hockenberry: Did you know know that you sent it to her?
Yves Cote: I don’t know.
Hockenberry: We know that you did, actually.
We tell him how we traced the porn, layer by layer. He gets up to leave.
Hockenberry: What do you have to say? Oh, one last question. Let’s just forget about all that. How about I make you a television star, okay? And you could just tell me what you want to say to this woman who you sent this e-mail to? Do you care?
Yves Cote: Are you sure it’s me?
Hockenberry: Oh, yeah.
Yves Cote: Do you have proof?
Hockenberry: Oh yeah.
We show him the letter we got from the "Spunkfarm" people.
Hockenberry: Here’s your address. There’s your name.
Yves Cote: And my cell. Okay.
Hockenberry: Do you care about the fact that this woman received this e-mail?
Yves Cote: If I did that, what can I do now?
Hockenberry: Let me think for a minute. Let’s see: Say you’re sorry.
Yves Cote: Yes, I can do it, if I did that, yes. I’m sorry.
He says Julie’s name should not have been on one of those lists he purchased, lists of people supposedly interested in porn.
Hockenberry: Would you take a picture like this, "Spunkfarm" here, and just walk up to some house in the neighborhood, and just, ring the doorbell, and say, ‘Here. Thought you’d like to have it?’
Yves Cote: This picture?
Hockenberry: Would you do that?
Yves Cote: For me? No.
He says we’ve got him all wrong—
Yves Cote: I am not a bad boy. I can tell you. I’m not bad.
He tells us he’s out of the business and won't spam porn e-mails anymore.
Yves Cote: For me, in my head, it’s finished. Because it is not finished for the girl. If you want, I call this girl, I say, “I’m sorry, I will do it.”
He offers to apologize. We try Julie’s cellphone.
Hockenberry (on the phone): Hello, Julie? Hi, it’s John Hockenberry. How are you? Um - do you have a couple of minutes? Uh, the uh, I remember when we spoke to you last, you said that there’s just absolutely no possibility we’d be able to find the person that sent you that e-mail. Um. Well, I’m sitting with him right now.
Yves Cote (on the phone): Julie? OK. I think you want to speak to me? Yes.
Yves Cote (on the phone): Listen Julie—We don’t do this anymore, okay? And really sorry about that. Okay? I have a young girl, too. And I don’t want... this can can happen to her too. Okay? Sorry, Julie. Thanks.
Then he left. As for Julie, she was suprised we found her spammer.
"I’m really shocked that you found him," says Julie. "I really didn’t know what to say... to put a human face to something that’s very vulgar."
Although spam expert Ray Everett Church never thought we’d find the spammer, he did predict how he’d behave if we did.
"I think many spammers, once they see the kind of damage they do, some of them may feel sorry. Some of them may get a sense of how much pain they cause people," says Everett Church. "I’ve seen some spammers who’ve said, 'You know, I didn’t really realize how bad my business was until it sort of came back to bite me.' And they have learned their lesson."
But there are many more spammers out there — spammers who don’t appear to be the slightest bit sorry for sending porn e-mails.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints