You wondered about this too

After seven years of writing about spam, one unanswered question has continued to nag at me above all others: do spam recipients actually cough up their credit card numbers to purchase those pills that promise to – how shall I phrase this? – increase a fellow’s bandwidth in the bedroom?

My presumption has been that, sure, people are stupid and somebody must…but the sales figures have to be smaller than the purchasers’ collective self-esteem. The resultant revenue certainly cannot justify the volumes of this particular type of spam, which taken at face value would appear to place the penis-enlargement industry somewhere between the auto manufacturers and the airlines in terms of size.

No, my working theory has been that the money to be made from penis-enlargement spam derives not from actual sales of penis-enlargement products, but from getting other aspiring spammers to pay for help in sending their own penis-enlargement spam; a phallic derivative of the classic pyramid scheme, if you will.

It turns out that spam does sell men hope that “herbal supplements” can give them what genetics did not. This is true at least according to a fascinating glimpse into the books of one spammer published recently in Wired and written by Brian McWilliams.

“An order log left exposed at one of Amazing Internet Products’ Web sites revealed that over a four-week period some 6,000 people responded to e-mail ads and placed orders for the company’s Pinacle herbal supplement,” McWilliams writes.

“Most customers ordered two bottles of the pills at a price of (US)$50 per bottle. Do the math and you begin to understand why spammers are willing to put up with the wrath of spam recipients, Internet service providers and federal regulators.”

Do the math and you also begin to understand why law enforcement will never be any more effective in curbing spam than it has been in eradicating pot: There’s far too much money to be made, an inexhaustible supply of individuals willing to give the business a go…and customers galore.

According to the story, Pinacle purchasers included at least two company presidents, a mutual fund manager, a restaurateur, a veterinarian and a chiropractor (who is not exactly the poster child for back-crackers being real doctors). And lest you begin to believe that only men could be this gullible, be aware that “numerous women” were reported to be among the customers.

It gets worse. The Web site these folks entrusted with their MasterCard, Visa or American Express failed to supply so much as a telephone number, physical address or e-mail box…which might pose a problem if you’ve got a question about whether you should mix your Pinacle with your Viagra.

You say you want to know about the site’s security and encryption provisions? Please. You already know the answer to that one. The company has calculated that its customers don’t have time for such worries when they’re preoccupied with bigger things.

One customer told the story’s author that he judged the Web site to be worth a shot because it included one of those “As Seen on TV” logos.

I was going to compare this with dropping your credit card on a crowded city street, but at least in that instance there’s a chance it might be picked up by a good Samaritan.

The good news is that the story reported no instances of fraud or identity theft against these foolhardy souls.

The bad news? Whatever sex these reckless individuals are having is probably not of the safe variety.

McNamara is a Network World U.S. columnist.Please send your comments to