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Cross-border law enforcement team targets spammers

January 9, 2006 08:18 PM EST | Miscellaneous | Email to Friend | Comments (0)

The FTC, U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Canadian consumer protection officials, and three state Attorneys General today announced a law enforcement initiative targeting spammers who are cluttering consumers’ mail boxes with millions of illegal and unwanted e-mail messages. The FTC targeted three operations, the Canadian Competition Bureau settled two cases, and the Attorneys General of Florida, North Carolina, and Texas filed complaints seeking to block the illegal spamming of three more operations. U.S. federal criminal authorities have executed search warrants as part of this initiative.

The FTC targeted operators who allegedly violated federal law by sending spam with false “from” information and misleading subject lines, and by failing to provide an “opt-out” option or a physical address. Documents filed with the court detailed how the spammers hijacked innocent consumers’ computers and turned them into spamming machines that relayed the illegal spam while concealing the real sender. This practice obscures the original source of the message so spammers can avoid detection by law enforcers and others, and allows them to elude filters used by Internet service providers. Two “victims” that appeared to be computers with open proxies actually were “honey pots” or “proxy pots” that did not relay the spam, but captured it, with its original routing information, to pass along to law enforcers.

The FTC also issued a report assessing the effectiveness of the CAN-SPAM Act which concludes that technological anti-spam advances have reduced the amount of spam reaching consumers’ in-boxes. Moreover, rigorous law enforcement has had a deterrent effect on spammers. As a result, consumers are receiving less spam now than they were receiving in 2003.

“We’re using technology and teamwork in the battle against illegal spam,” said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Taken together, they are helping us combat the outlaw spammers who disregard laws designed to prevent fraud and protect consumers’ rights.”

The FTC has asked the courts to permanently bar violations of the CAN-SPAM Act. The Act requires that spam contain accurate “from” information and subject lines and requires spammers to provide a working “opt-out” option and a physical address. The agency also has asked the courts to preserve the defendants’ assets. It will ask the courts to order the defendants to give up their ill-gotten gains.

The report to Congress, “Effectiveness and Enforcement of the CAN-SPAM Act,” concludes that the Act is effective in providing protection for consumers, and that the Act is being enforced aggressively by state and federal law enforcers and the private sector. The FTC has brought 21 cases under CAN-SPAM and another 62 cases targeting spam before the enactment of the law.

The report describes two types of unsolicited commercial e-mail: one type is e-mail sent by legitimate marketers promoting legitimate products or services. The second type is sent by “outlaw”spammers who ignore the law, take great effort to hide their identities and whereabouts, and may well infect consumers’ computers with malware. The report observes that the Act codifies “best practices” that legitimate marketers are following and notes that technology advancements may be the most useful tool in combating outlaw spammers.

In addition to the analysis of effectiveness and enforcement, the report proposes three steps that could improve the efficacy of the CAN-SPAM Act. First, Congress should enact the “US SAFE WEB Act,” to improve the FTC’s ability to trace spammers and sellers who operate outside of the United States. Second, we should continue education efforts to ensure that consumers are aware of the various ways they can protect themselves from spam, spyware, and sexually-explicit material. Third, we need continued improvement of anti-spam technology, and in particular, tools that prevent spammers from operating anonymously.

The cases were brought with the assistance of the Microsoft Corporation.

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