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Small paper’s Web site confused with gigantic multinational bank’s

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Bulk e-mail can be mildly aggravating. But what happens when your online address is mistaken for a multinational corporation that serves millions of people?

"It's been just a monumental pain in the butt," said Jim Caldwell, who spends hours a day deleting messages inadvertently sent to him.

The Web-based counterpart to his community shopper based in Waynesboro, Va., called "Bulletin Board of Virginia" can be found at www.bbva.com — the domain name many people wrongly assume belongs to Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, or BBVA, one of the largest banks in Spain and Latin America.

Caldwell receives messages about bank transactions, supposedly private corporate information and even customer account numbers. He's also gotten his fair share of well-traveled e-mail jokes and frivolous messages from friends of the bank's employees, including one from a girl inviting him to a party in France.

"I tried to answer them," he said. "But it's been a long time since I've had high school Spanish."

Caldwell has complained for about a year now to anyone who would listen, but he has found the Internet to be a lonely place for small businesses with a beef. While rules have evolved to punish cybersquatters, there is no recourse for legitimate domain holders who happen to have the same name as the giants.

"This is a real gray area where there is no regulation," said Cheryl Regan, spokeswoman for Network Solutions, which registered Caldwell's address. "I think it's up to the two parties to work it out."

Caldwell said he's had sparse contact with the bank — at one point an executive even asked how much money he wanted for the name — but nobody seemed to care that he was receiving the company's e-mail.

"We are aware of him, and yes, it seems like he's received a lot of mail," said Karina Sarmiento, a spokeswoman in BBVA's New York office.

It is possible that BBVA might offer to purchase the domain name from Caldwell, she said. Meantime, the company has tried to remedy the problem by informing staff about the mix-up.

"That's about all we can do on our side," she said.

The problems started last fall when, after 18 years of publishing the print version of the Bulletin Board, Caldwell decided to enter the Internet age and augment his 10,000-circulation publication with a Web site.

The site had been receiving a steady stream of hits for a few months. Then in October, it exploded with traffic.

The source of the interest, Caldwell would find out, was the creation of BBVA through the merger of Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya and Argentine bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria. All of a sudden, the bank's 90,000 employees and 34 million customers, started e-mailing.

"This is one of the fundamental problems with Web sites," said Pam Brewster, a spokeswoman for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which the U.S. government established in 1998 to oversee Internet policy.

While companies with the same name avoid confusion with different postal addresses, there can only be one dot-com, Brewster said. And rules to oust cybersquatters — those who register popular names in hopes of selling it for a profit — don't apply when both sides have a legitimate claim to their name.

"Basically, he's stuck on his own," Brewster said.