The Great Email Marketing Scam

There are two types of spam email – the really stupid ones that you spot within seconds (“I’m the manager of a bank in Nigeria and need to move $3million out of the country and will give you half if you help me…”) and there are the more creative ones (which I’ll talk about below).

Before I do, the first type isn’t actually as stupid as it sounds.  The reason scammers continue to use such emails is because they work – particularly on really vulnerable Internet users.  No matter what sort of scam you run it takes time and effort if you’re going to milk the maximum money out of it and what these scammers are doing is actually quite smart – they’re making sure the top of their sales funnel is full of suitable potential clients before they start.  They’re not looking for the Internet savvy – they’re looking for the Internet idiot.  More details on this in another article I wrote some time ago.

Anyway, back to the second type of scam – the more subtle one.  To demonstrate my point I’m going to use an example that someone tried to use on me.  The company is (allegedly) an email marketing company who are selling highly qualified lists of email addresses to businesses so that they can be used for marketing purposes.

The original email seemed pretty plausible; it had got through some pretty severe spam filters on my email system, it was well written (no spelling/grammar mistakes); the content was enticing without being completely over the top and it wasn’t too ‘pushy’ – just the right blend of ‘bait’ for the unsuspecting.  Unfortunately, I’m the suspicious type so I decided to look into it further.

The first thing that triggered my alarm bells was the fact that this was an email marketing company offering lists of email addresses that were fully ‘opt-in’; in other words everyone on the list had agreed to be on the list and thus you would not be spamming them if you sent them a message.  That’s fine and how it should be – but my business isn’t on any such list and this company was sending email to me!  If they’re doing that then why should I believe that everyone on their lists is opt-in?

I then went to who.is.  This is a great site for doing a little bit of background investigation into who owns a web domain.  Although everyone is supposed to add their full ownership details there are many people/companies who don’t so lack of information can be as useful as a full set.  In this case I found out that the domain details simply gave a name on the front page but then digging deeper I found that there was a web (pardon the pun) of different domains all registered to the same person ending up with a Hotmail account – and all pointing towards online marketing.  This didn’t really look like a ‘small, family run business’ as the original email suggested.  Another indicator was that many of the web domains had all been recently registered – once again, odd for a company that was supposedly 20 years old.

By now I would usually just have deleted the email but I decided to look a little further.  I Googled the individual’s name and up popped a number of sites showing that this individual/company was involved in an interesting business venture.

What she is doing (and I believe this person does actually exist) is building up a new email marketing website, running it for a couple of months then selling it on as a going concern ‘capable of bringing in over £10k/month for just a few hours’ work each day’.  She then sets up another using the same model and repeats.

Is this illegal? Almost certainly not.  Is it scammy?  I think yes, because the data being used is probably just rubbish scraped together off the internet and has little use to the buyer of the data.

Taking one of my experiments to the extreme about a year ago I actually went ahead and bought data from a similar company to the one talked about here (I put a few measures in place beforehand to ensure I wouldn’t end up out of pocket).  I even spoke to the ‘MD’ who assured me the data was targeted at a specific business area (small businesses, less than 50 employees).  When the data arrived it was absolutely rubbish.  On one end of the scale it had multinational company emails (including banks) and at the other it had primary and secondary schools and churches.  I’m sure there were some people in the list who might have been interested in my product but they almost certainly hadn’t opted-in.

I spoke to the ‘MD’ again and gave him the opportunity to come clean but he didn’t so I just went straight back to the bank and got my money back.  I note that the company is still trading and has another site which is almost a mirror image but under a different name.  It’s almost certainly another part of a similar scam to the one described here.

That’s another facet of the scam that this lady is running; all the sites it spawns are very similar and built around the same model – even to the point where the errors in the sitemap are the same.  I’m not an SEO expert but I think some of the sitemap stuff is put in to help increase search engine results (otherwise why would an email marketing site have a page for Apple products but no products shown on the page…?)

I’ve been careful about not saying who the individual is or what the Web site title is but if you want to know the details feel free to contact me and discuss.

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