Charles Prebay is as bugged as anyone by the volume of spam clogging his e-mail in-box. But one relentless, exclamation-filled missive has grown from a mild irritation into a nonstop headache for the California businessman.
It's one of those typical stock-pumping e-mails, promoting a thinly traded company with "explosive growth potential" that is, recipients are assured, just moments away from quadrupling in price.
"Acquire a position in CBYI TODAY!" the e-mail urges.
CBYI is the ticker symbol for Cal-Bay International, a sales-rep company Prebay knows all about; after all, he founded it.
But he says he knows nothing about the yearlong e-mail campaign that has turned Cal-Bay into the most aggressively spammed stock on the Internet, spawning constant complaints to the company and a federal securities investigation.
"It's been very annoying, very disruptive," Prebay said from Cal-Bay's Tustin, Calif., headquarters. "It seems like we spend hours every day responding to people who are complaining about this."
The spams, which started in earnest last July, are so persistent that Cal-Bay International isn't the only company that's been forced to publicly distance itself from the campaign.
Disavowals also have come from a Florida investment firm that wrote a favorable report on Cal-Bay stock, from two online stock sites that were mentioned in some e-mails, and even from an unrelated, private company with the misfortune of sharing the name Cal-Bay.
"Oh man, it's been brutal," said Dave Weisberg, a principal in Cal-Bay Systems Inc., a San Rafael, Calif., engineering company whose website - www.calbay.com - now includes a prominent "Note to Irate Spam recipients" explaining the confusion.
"We've been getting tons of e-mail from irate people who think it's our company," Weisberg said. "They send us these `nastygrams.' It's terrible."
But the Cal-Bay tale is about more than the annoyance of unwanted e-mail. Although the message's lofty stock predictions have proved wildly off-base, trading records show that both the volume and price of Cal-Bay shares spiked each time a burst of e-mails was released.
The run-up in price was short-lived, however, and investors who clamored to load up on Cal-Bay likely lost hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively when the stock price drifted back down days or weeks later.
But someone else may have gotten equally rich.
Hidden in the e-mails, at the bottom of page after page of blank screens, is a disclaimer indicating the sender was paid as much as $27,000 to send out the spam.
That may or may not be true, but similar claims often accompany stock promotions because some believe they satisfy a Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure rule.
The disclaimer became one of many red flags that led experienced investors to see the Cal-Bay hype as a classic "pump-and-dump" scheme, in which a large investor seeks to pump up a stock with fantastic claims about its growth prospects, then dumps shares as soon as the price climbs.
There were other warning flags: The e-mails appear to have originated from an assortment of foreign countries and many had fictitious return addresses. Recently, messages have tried to trick recipients into opening them, with bogus subject lines such as "Do you want to go out this weekend" and "company cutbacks."
Some of the messages also repeatedly distorted an analyst's report on Cal-Bay, claiming in one spot that the company was expected to earn 25 cents a share in 2003. The report actually predicted earnings of 2.5 cents.
The e-mails never named the analyst, but several angry anti-spammers tracked down a company - Meehan Capital Management Group of Orlando, Fla. - and fired off electronic assaults.