‘I turned to crime because no one clapped at my high school graduation’
August 6, 2008
Strangers hated him, blamed him for wrecking their lives, deemed him a time-sucking pariah who grated on millions of people worldwide.
None of that mattered to Robert Soloway; it was part of his fortune, his way. As he vexed others, he drove Porsches, dressed in Prada, had a penthouse and lived a playboy’s life.
But his insecurity was never far behind. By the time federal agents arrested him for spewing illegal e-mails, he didn’t much protest the moniker they gave him – the Spam King.
“Here’s my dysfunction,” Soloway said recently. “It was that notoriety. People knew me. No one clapped for me at my high school graduation. Maybe it’s not how I want to be famous, but (my thinking was) ‘At least people know who I am.’ “
Once considered one of the most prolific spammers in the world – sending millions of e-mails a day for years – Soloway was sentenced last month to nearly four years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and e-mail and wire fraud.
The punishment capped years of festering rage, in which people said he clogged inboxes, ruined Web domains, killed livelihoods, wasted productivity and put innocent people on spamming blacklists.
These days, the 29-year-old felon appears less a villain and more a jumbled study in contrasts.
In his first lengthy, local interview, Soloway was mostly contrite, with a touch of defiance. He was elegantly composed in Italian loafers and a chic velvet jacket. His body, afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, twitched with tics.
He spoke candidly but declined to provide friends and family to corroborate his story.
His fall was swift and stunning.
He once thought nothing of jetting to Vegas and tipping a cabbie $1,000.
But in the year since his May 2007 arrest, he had to find a job and worked for a while in a leather-cleaning factory for $9 an hour. The feds seized his Prada, Versace, Gucci and Armani jackets, forcing him to shop the clearance rack in Macy’s when he needed a winter coat.
He once owned a fleet of luxury cars, but his last one, a Mercedes SL 500, was repossessed, so he now walks or takes the bus. He eats at McDonald’s. He spends much of his time in the company of his lawyer, Richard Troberman, who declined to comment.
His posh Harbor Steps penthouse is long gone, exchanged for a small studio in the same downtown building. His next move will be more drastic – he has been ordered to report to a federal prison camp on Sept. 22. The judge gave him 60 days to work out his many medications.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I can honestly say, even though I’m going to federal prison, for once in my life, I have a focus. I’m very sorry for what I did. I’m hoping people can forgive me.”
His remorse was sandwiched between rambling speeches about how the U.S. Attorney’s Office made an example of him, or vilified him beyond necessary, or how some of his victims had “overstated” their cases.
Prosecutors charged him with 40 criminal counts, including aggravated identity theft, in which they said he stole people’s e-mail addresses to spam others.
Soloway denied that charge. He said he had hidden his identity on e-mails only to evade spam filters, which helped him make more money for his Internet marketing business. “It was pure greed,” he said.
Soloway grew up in the upscale California suburb of Palos Verdes Estates, where he said he had been expected to attend college. But with his Tourette’s syndrome and assorted disorders – attention-deficit, oppositional-defiant, obsessive-compulsive – he had struggled in school.
He was also an outcast. The only place he felt good was online, where he ran a popular site to buy and sell Transformer and Star Wars toys in high school. It was first time he realized the power of the Internet.
“I was miserably going to school. I never went to football games or high school dances. I was overweight. And I would rush home and sit down on my computer and talk to people,” he said. “That was the only place I received validation. Not that that excuses my activities.”
He started his marketing business at 17 while living with his parents and found the largely unregulated world of spam extremely profitable, earning him $700,000 to $800,000 a year in the next few years, he said.
He moved to Northern California and then Oregon, spending his money recklessly and as quickly as he made it.
“I just knew for the first time in my life that people were happy to see me, or call me on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said.
But he often felt sad. In 2003, he wanted to start over and moved to Seattle with his cat, Simba.
“I look back now; I never said ‘bye’ to a single person,” he said of his Oregon days.
Vowing to scale down his business and spending, he wanted to go to museums, “get cultured” and meet “quality people.”
But he descended into his old ways, shopping when he felt bad, numbing himself with a new designer jacket or pair of shoes. “Money was all I cared about,” he said. “My entire closets were filled with hundreds of jackets. I had the best Italian furniture. It was, ‘What else can I buy?’ I was very unhappy.”
He continued to spam, despite pleas from his victims to stop. He defied a 2004 federal anti-spam law, and two spam-related judgments against him in 2005, in which he had been ordered to pay Microsoft $7 million and an Oklahoma man $10 million.
“I thought I was invincible,” he said.
Soloway said he feels bad about the computer neophytes he victimized. They didn’t know how to deal with his onslaught of spam. He was more blase about victims who specialized in computers, including one who said in court papers that she couldn’t sleep after spending many frustrating hours trying to delete Soloway’s spam.
Perhaps, he said, she wasn’t very good at her job.
“I’m not minimizing what I did, but the fact is, it is just an e-mail,” he said. “If it does become a nuisance, get a spam filter. You can get them for free.”