Major US ISPs sue hundreds of spammers

Four major U.S. Internet service providers (ISPs) are suing more than 220 alleged spammers responsible for sending out hundreds of millions of pieces of unsolicited commercial e-mail, the companies announced Wednesday.

The six lawsuits, filed late Tuesday by America Online Inc. (AOL), EarthLink Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., target the worst spammers using "outlaw tactics," said Mike Callahan, senior vice president and general counsel at Yahoo. The lawsuits are among the first filed under a new U.S. law called CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing), which went into effect in January.

"If you're a spammer ... this is not a great day for you," said Randall Boe, AOL executive vice president and general counsel. "Ultimately, we're going to locate you and sue you."

The lawsuits, filed in federal courts in California, Virginia, Georgia and Washington state, name just five individuals and five companies, with at least 215 other defendants as unnamed "John Does." The companies said they are confident they can use the expanded law enforcement tools available under CAN-SPAM to identify the unnamed defendants and shut them down.

"We're only a couple of subpoenas away from standing on someone's doorstep," said Les Seagraves, vice president, chief privacy officer and assistant general counsel at EarthLink.

The four ISPs could not give an exact number of spammers targeted in the lawsuits because they are still investigating the cases. The four companies are sharing information in order to track and identify spammers. The companies were unable to calculate what percentage of their spam traffic was caused by the defendants, with representatives saying only that the defendants have sent hundreds of millions of pieces of spam.

The alleged spammers targeted in the lawsuits include those sending out advertisements for penis enlargement pills, weight loss supplements, adult content Web sites, mortgage offers, cable descramblers, university diplomas and Viagra, among other products. The spam identified in the lawsuits violated one or more sections of the CAN-SPAM law, including false "from" addresses, no physical address in the e-mail and no option to unsubscribe. Much of the spam also advertised illegal products or used deceptive advertising, according to the ISPs.

Although many of the defendants use computers outside of the U.S. to send the spam, the companies believe they will be able to use the CAN-SPAM law to bring the defendants into U.S. court, said Nancy Anderson, deputy general counsel at Microsoft. Spammers who believe the U.S. can't prosecute them because they operate offshore believe a "myth," Anderson said. Their spam causes damage to U.S. ISPs and consumers, she added.

The four companies, which formed an antispam alliance in April 2003, filed six lawsuits:

-- An AOL lawsuit against Davis Wolfgang Hawke, also known as Dave Bridger, Braden Bournival and an unknown number of John Does, for allegedly sending millions of pieces of spam advertising Pinacle penis enlargement pills, weight loss supplements, hand-held devices called "personal lie detectors" and a product called the "Banned CD." The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, also alleges that Hawke also offered to provide a number of spam-related services, including millions of AOL addresses and "bulk friendly hosting" on servers located in China, Latin America and other countries.

E-mails from Hawke and the others have generated at least 100,000 complaints from AOL users, according to the company. A message left at a telephone number identified as Bridger's was not immediately returned.

-- A second AOL lawsuit, also filed in the Virginia court, against 40 John Does accused of advertising several products, including adult-themed Web sites and business opportunities. The senders' identities are hidden through fraudulent means and contain misleading subject lines, according to AOL. This group of alleged spammers has prompted more than 500,000 complaints from AOL users.

-- An EarthLink lawsuit against 75 John Doe spammers, advertising prescription drugs, mortgage leads, cable descramblers, university diplomas and get-rich-quick schemes, among other products. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, accuses the defendants of hiding their identities with falsified headers and fake "from" lines, among other tactics.

-- A Microsoft lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, against JDO Media Inc., based in Florida, and 50 John Does. Microsoft accuses the defendants of using open proxies and false header information to hide their identities while advertising a multilevel marketing program. A search for JDO Media found no contact information.

-- A second Microsoft lawsuit, also filed in the Washington state court, against 50 John Does doing business as the Super Viagra Group. The defendants allegedly advertised so-called Super Viagra and a weight-loss patch using open proxies and hijacked computers. The spam also uses misleading transmission information and subject lines, according to Microsoft.

-- A Yahoo lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, against Eric, Matthew and Barry Head, and their companies Gold Disk Canada Inc., Head Programming Inc. and Infinite Technologies Worldwide Inc. Yahoo alleges its members received about 94 million pieces of spam from the Heads in January.

The defendants use open proxies to disguise the origin of their messages, which advertise life insurance, debt consolidation and travel services, Yahoo alleges. The operation also uses deceptive subject lines and sells e-mail addresses to other marketers, Yahoo said. A search for the Heads' contact information was unsuccessful.

CAN-SPAM cosponsors Senators Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, praised the four ISPs for filing the lawsuits.

"Today's filing proves that the days of spamming with impunity are finally over, and all those who abuse e-mail and threaten its viability as the Internet's most popular and useful application should take notice," Wyden said in a statement. "These suits will have to be settled in a court of law, but I believe this action marks the dawn of a new day for spammers -- one in which they face real accountability."

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Grant Gross

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