Microsoft files civil suit against Texas spammer

Microsoft filed a civil lawsuit against two men accused of running a host of spam companies that sent out millions of spam messages that violated the federal Controlling the Assault of Non-Solictied Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM).

The company joined Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in suing Ryan Samuel Pitylak, a student at the University of Texas, Austin, and codefendant Mark Trotter in a lawsuit filed Friday in a federal court in Seattle. Microsoft accused Pitylak and Trotter with setting up shell companies that sent tens of millions of illegal spam messages to Internet users over its network, according to a company spokesman.

On Thursday, Pitylak and Trotter, of California, were named in a civil suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. The men set up a number of Nevada-based shell companies, including Leadplex, Payperaction, and Eastmark Technology, to distribute spam, according to the suit. Together, the companies made up the fourth largest illegal spam operation in the world, according to a statement by the Texas Attorney General.

Microsoft cooperated with the Texas Attorney General's office for almost one year on the case, according to Aaron Kornblum, Internet safety enforcement attorney at Microsoft.

The Texas Attorney General said in its suit that the two men violated CAN-SPAM by using misleading subject lines and not indicating that their e-mail messages were advertisements. Some messages also offered home refinancing services the defendants were not licensed to offer. Recipients were also tricked into giving away personal information with promises that information would be protected. The information collected was then sold to other companies, according to the statement.

Microsoft provided more than 20,000 examples of allegedly illegal e-mail sent by the Pitylak and Trotter that were snared in Microsoft spam trap accounts, Microsoft said in a statement.

Microsoft did not specify what damages it was seeking in its civil suit.

The two defendants already face considerable fines if they lose in court. CAN-SPAM imposes penalties of US$250 per violation, up to a maximum of $2 million. The attorney general is also suing the two men under two Texas state laws that cover electronic mail and solicitation as well as deceptive practices. Those laws carry fines of up to $25,000 per day and $20,000 per violation, the attorney general said.

Microsoft is also suing the men under CAN-SPAM, as well as two Washington state laws: the Washington Commercial and Electronic Mail Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act, according to a copy of the complaint.

This is the third time Microsoft has teamed with state attorneys general to sue spammers. In June 2003, the company filed a number of civil suits along with the Washington State Attorney General. In December 2003, the company joined with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to sue still more spammers, Kornblum said.

The state suits are important because they send a message to spammers that they have more to fear than simply Internet service providers. "It shows (that) the people of the state are also moving against spammers," Kornblum said.

Microsoft will soon begin discovery in the case and hopes to find out how the spammers distributed e-mail on the Internet as well as how they used the shell companies to hide the origins of the messages, he said.

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