The bot who loved me

Are those secret-admirer e-mails real -- or just the latest excrescence of an Internet marketing machine grown unfathomably sleazy?

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The bot who loved me

He has blond hair, blue eyes and a sarcastic sense of humor. He’s an artist, writer or musician, between the ages of 28 and 32. His idea of fun on a first date is a walk in the park, but he hankers to go on an African safari.

And this man — whoever he is — likes me. The Internet told me so.

Just a few walks in the park from now, I could be on the savanna in Zaire with Mr. X, trading acerbic remarks about the redoubtable mating habits of wildebeests.

There’s just one hitch: I’m not convinced that this secret admirer actually exists. He may just be the bot who loved me.

A flirty e-mail from matchmaker@someonelikesyou.com tipped me off to this mystery man’s tender crush. “You have a secret admirer!” gushed the message. Like half a dozen similar Web sites — eCrush, Crushlink and SecretAdmirer.com among them — SomeoneLikesYou plays Internet go-between. The gimmick: An anonymous e-mail crush notification service can pave the way for romance without the risk of rejection.

But while most of these “crush” sites operate above-board, proudly listing the founders’ names and e-mail addresses, the cupids behind SomeoneLikesYou and its corporate sister site, Crushlink, play hard to get. The sites conceal the identities not only of the source of your crush note, but also of the people who run the services. Even some of the publicly available domain-name registration information about the sites is fake.

This secrecy, along with the sheer volume of admiring messages spewing from crushmaster@crushlink.com and matchmaker@someonelikeyou.com, has raised speculation that there’s less romance than savvy marketing going on here. Competitors accuse Crushlink and SomeoneLikesYou of spamming any old e-mail address they can scrape off the Net with love notes, building membership by preying on sad-sack lonely-hearts — then peddling affiliate programs to those members to bring in some cash.



“My dog has gotten ‘someone has a crush on you’ e-mail messages — she’s a cute dog, but no one has a crush on her,” says Karen Demars, co-founder of eCrush. “My belief is that they are sending ‘someone has a crush on you’ messages to people who have not been legitimately crushed.”

One consumer advocacy group in California is even threatening a lawsuit against Crushlink for misleading consumers about their love lives. And vigilant webmasters and anti-spam crusaders, suspicious that the sites are simply cynical e-mail harvesters, charge “spam!”

Forget “Who’s my crush?” The more interesting question is: who’s the crushmaster?

Is Mr. Crush really Mr. Spammer in a cupid’s costume, breeding false hopes among the lovelorn with fake messages about nascent crushes that don’t really exist? Or could the crushmaster be a scorned lover turning his vindictive rage on the Net’s lonely millions in a frenzy of mixed messages? Or, maybe, just maybe, there’s actually this much latent love out there on the Web, just waiting for the right database to come along and play yenta.

All the accusations of nefarious behavior and the secrecy surrounding these sites has made unmasking the identities of the frenzied cupids behind them a true Internet whodunit. After all, for geeks, speculating about the identity of a mysterious webmaster is as captivating as thinking about who might have a crush on you.

By following the geeks’ trail in the ether, I found out who the crushmaster is — and just like Mr. Right, he’s the kind of guy you’d least expect.

SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink represent a more extreme version of what all crush sites do. They inspire you to reveal your own crushes’ e-mail addresses by dangling the lure that they know who wants you.

To find out what guy would be such a fourth-grader as to reveal his interest in me in this cheesy way, I first registered at SomeoneLikesYou, giving away a bevy of valuable demographic facts about myself in the process, like my date of birth and my ZIP code. Then I filled out a profile from a fixed menu of canned choices, indicating my hair color, eye color and ideal first date.

Finally, I was invited to offer all my own crushes’ e-mail addresses up for sacrifice.

If I guess who my secret admirer is and turn over his e-mail address to the site, our identities will be revealed to each other, and we could be pricing safaris before the week is out!

But if there’s no love connection, every address I’ve given to the site will get a message announcing “You have a secret admirer!” and the whirlwind of anonymous, crazy-making romantic madness just spreads.

What makes SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink different from the rest of the sites in the genre is this: they bait hopeful visitors to hand over as many e-mail addresses as possible by trading clues for e-mail addresses.

The more e-mails that you reveal to SomeoneLikesYou, the more hints you get about your admirer’s identity, like his hair color and his approximate age. Five e-mail addresses generates one clue. I gave away more than two-dozen e-mail addresses before the system ran out of hints about my admirer. Not even the most love-sick puppy has that many real crushes.

So, what’s stronger — the hunger for any clue that might unmask your own admirer, or the desire to protect the in-boxes of your friends, loved ones and colleagues from random romance spam, which could potentially embarrass you in the process? “She has a crush on me! Yikes!” And is it really spam if friends or colleagues have sold out your address in their own search for romance?

I elected to take a middle road, which wouldn’t embarrass me or abuse my friends’ trust, but might turn up enough hints to reveal my crush. I gamed the system by entering random, made-up e-mail addresses, potentially muddling the in-boxes (and sanity) of total strangers in pursuit of my own love interest.

Crushes — they make people do crazy things.

But the system anticipates this simple ploy. If a made-up e-mail address I turned over bounced, SomeoneLikesYou just demanded another one.

This clues system helps explain why the SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink romance virus has spread so far. A single wistful crushee hankering to know who likes her can generate dozens of “crush” messages to people she doesn’t even know, which will likely spur some percentage of those suckers to spread the love as well.

That’s got the California Consumer Action Network, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, considering filing a lawsuit against these online cupids, according to the group’s attorney, Joe Hughes. He charges that the site is violating the state’s laws against unfair and deceptive advertising.

“We’re concerned about the fact that it’s a spam generator. They’re implying to the user that they’re going to find out if the e-mail address they enter is someone who has a crush on them, although it’s probably more likely that someone is doing just what they’re doing, which is guessing who had a crush on them.” Could a class action lawsuit of lovelorn crushees hurt by messages about fake admirers be far behind?

The more I learned about the “someone” who likes me, the less real he seemed.

The e-mail that I got from this “secret admirer” came to an official corporate address that no friend would use. Besides, the “hints” I received about my admirer bore an uncanny resemblance to what I told the system about myself when I registered.

Maybe my account had just become a bit of currency to buy someone else a “hint.” But the competitors to SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink in the online crush space say that it’s more than just this hints system that’s generating all those befuddling crush messages.

Clark Benson, the co-founder of eCrush, says: “Crushlink must have bought tons of spam lists. The site went from nothing to a million visitors in no time. In about two weeks, everybody’s accounts here were getting Crushlink e-mails.” Among the addresses at eCrush that have gotten “crush” messages from Crushlink and SomeoneLikesYou: webmaster@ecrush.com, bizdev@ecrush.com, jobs@ecrush.com and Maggie@ecrush.com, a joke account for his co-founder’s dog, which is published on the eCrush site.

Demars, the eCrush co-founder who owns Maggie, charges: “They’re obtaining e-mail addresses in a way that is either technically generated or generated out of a hostage marketing situation (want a hint? Just give us five e-mail addresses!) that are just not truly the product of someone having a crush on you.”

Miles Kronby, the founder of SecretAdmirer — the grandfather of the concept, launched in 1997 — won’t name names, but says that he’s watched the e-mail crush concept take a hurtful, debauched turn: “The problem is, some unscrupulous people running these things decided to abuse this system as a kind of spam generator,” he sighs.

Perhaps the most extreme is the Crush007 site. (Note: Clicking on the link will open a lot of advertising windows.) Based in Malaysia, it sends a fake crush e-mail to an unsuspecting stooge. The site then goads the sucker to reveal all kinds of personal facts, including “how many times does she/he masturbate a week?” and “names of his/her biggest crush.” The homepage makes no secret about its motives: “We have developed this website just to help you find out who your friend’s crushes are, and also not to mention, their biggest, most well kept secrets.” Fear for the dorkiest kid in the class, thrilled that someone actually has a crush on him, who is about to be the victim of an Internet humiliation machine.

But carping competitors aren’t the only ones who think that all these anonymous romance e-mails have taken a sick and twisted turn. Several geeks, webmasters and spam fighters have put these love messages to the spam test and gone on a Web vigilante mission to find out who’s behind them. If they couldn’t find out who had crushes on them, at least they could figure out who was generating all those love notes!

“Warning: crushlink is a spam scam,” warns “Steve,” a geek who refuses to reveal his real identity for fear of being sued, on a Web page set up to discuss his experience with the site. After he received a “crush” message, he became convinced that Crushlink was a system for harvesting e-mail addresses, so he registered for the site with an account at his own domain that he’d never used for anything else. Several months later, this account got a message from something called “Jennyslist.”

Justin Beech, the webmaster behind Broadbandreports.com, went on his own sleuthing mission to unmask Mr. Crush after webmasters on his site groused that Crushlink and SomeoneLikesYou were fomenting spam, not romance. Although the WHOIS records for both sites are at least partially fake — for instance, the phone number for Crushlink is listed as 800-000-0000 — their Web server IP addresses don’t lie. Beech linked both sites to Jumpstart Technologies LLC, a “direct-marketing” company. His research led him to finger Johann Schleier-Smith, a Harvard graduate and currently a physics grad student at Stanford, as Mr. Crush.

But it was Rob Whelan, a 40-year-old CIO for a retailing company in Tennessee, who finally turned up the guy who will admit to being the president and co-owner of Crushlink, Mr. Crush himself.

When Whelan got his “crush” message from Crushlink, he was immediately suspicious: “I’m not 12, so it seemed odd that I would get a message like this,” he says. He contacted anti-spam organizations, the Federal Trade Commission and CyberAngels, a group that protects children online. After a few weeks of mucking around, threats to sue prompted a nervous phone call from one G reg Tseng, another Stanford physics grad student, who also went to Harvard as an undergrad.

As a sophomore in college, Tseng started a dot-com called flyingchickens.com, which sought to take on Harvard’s Coop by selling textbooks. (Johann Schleier-Smith, also then a student at Harvard. co-founded the site.) Flyingchickens soon merged with something called Limespot.com, a college-event listing site.

In short, these two embodied the late-’90s, dot-com poster-boy ideal — techie, entrepreneurial undergrads so brimming with Big Ideas that they couldn’t wait for graduation to start launching companies.

These weren’t the stereotypical lowlife spammers that Whelan expected to find on the other end of his Crushmail. “Greg Tseng is a very bright young man, and unfortunately he’s chosen this vocation for himself,” sighs Whelan. “He does have a good entrepreneurial spirit, but I think that he’s just misguided.”

Whelan worries about the hurt feelings of kids who won’t think twice about dumping their friends’ e-mail addresses into a system that will send anonymous messages misleading them that romance is just at the other end of an “@” sign. “These guys think they’re going to make a lot of money and not hurt anybody, but they’re really just going to make a lot of money,” says Whelan. “And they’re not going to ever know or see or hear from the people who are hurt by this.”

But worse than teenage false hopes, Whelan is concerned that parents have no way to opt their kids out. And he charges that the system lures kids to lie about their ages to Crushlink’s and SomeoneLikesYou’s marketing partners, who don’t want 12-year-olds as customers. That’s because one way to get “hints” to your admirer’s identity on Crushlink is to register for an affiliated site’s marketing program, like Netflix, which pays Crushlink a bounty for every person who signs up. SomeoneLikesYou takes this scheme even further. Even if you guess your crush correctly, you either have to sign up for an affiliate’s program or pay $14.90 to find out who your admirer actually is.

After much stalking, both online and off, I finally tracked Tseng down. Although he demurely refused to speak to me on the phone or answer any specific questions about the charges leveled against his online love-note machines, he did send a few comments in one e-mail.

He maintained that the secrecy surrounding who’s involved in the company is simply because they’re in “stealth mode.” But he outright denied spamming anyone with missives that might breed romantic delusions: “We do not sell or rent our user list to third parties (a.k.a. ‘spam’),” he wrote. “We do not purchase lists or harvest e-mail addresses. All of our outbound e-mails are either user-generated notices or communications with our registered users. We send precisely zero e-mail advertisements.”

At least in one limited instance, this statement appears false. Remember Jennyslist, which messaged “Steve,” after he registered for Crushlink with an address that he’d used for nothing else? A business acquaintance of Tseng’s reveals that Jennyslist.com is a project of Jumpstart Technologies. Isn’t this advertising? Tseng declined to comment.

Oh, maybe we’re all just such doubting Thomases about the idea that anyone might actually like us that we can’t face the possibility of new romance, even when it shows up right in our in boxes. Tseng seems to think so: “Some people may be confused about the origin of the ‘Someone has a crush on you’ notices but actually every single person that receives such a notice was listed as a crush by a registered user (and they should come to CrushLink to find out who!).”

Really? Then, prove to me that this person who claimed to admire me really exists, I demanded. But Tseng stayed mum. He had the perfect excuse, not that he bothered to offer it: Selling out the guy who likes me (if he exists) would violate the site’s whole premise — crush notification without the risk of rejection.

So maybe the evil genius of SomeoneLikesYou isn’t that it’s a love machine at all, but that it’s an Internet Narcissus’ pool. In this scenario, the love automaton feeds you hints about your “secret admirer,” based on the profile you entered about yourself. You have so much in common!

More likely, the messages I got from SomeoneLikesYou came from someone who offered up my e-mail address when he or she tried to game the system to find out who likes them — just as I did.

Or maybe there really is some blond-haired, blue-eyed, sarcastic guy biding his time surfing African safari Web sites, while he nurtures his fervent hope that the Internet will be our go-between.

Only the matchmaker knows for sure, and that pathological flirt’s not telling.

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